Of Bridges and Bombs

Saskatoon Police reopened a bridge after a report of a mysterious case beside a heavily trafficked bridge. I laughed at the absurdity of this for a while until my brain actually started to think.

It’s good to be vigilant in todays day and age. We have to go to these lengths to protect ourselves due to the seemingly random bomb attacks of extremists. I blame religion for this kind of paranoia. Had the pious decided to work together instead of killing each other with random acts of violence we would not be in fear of attack. Times past the atrocities in other countries would be meaningless and distant. Today the global media has brought these acts into our living rooms every night to remind us that people are killing one another every moment in horrific manners while we are sitting there eating a T.V. dinner. I get sick when I watch the news during dinner making the meal unappetizing to say the least. I should patent that as a weight loss program and make millions. Try to eat a chocolate bar when watching 10 people get vaporized by a roadside bomb, or an infidels head get cut off for not praying at the right time. I bet you can’t.

Scenes like this are on our screens every night.

There are Canadians who blow stuff up without religious motivation. However, I would not fear being in a public place and getting obliterated by these extremists. If I was a pipeline, I may think differently (if at all).

Would you be more afraid of this scene if the person was holding a copy of the bible or Mein Kampf?

The enemy of peace has changed but the fear will never go away. During the crusades one might fear a man holding a bible and a weapon. The 20th century world wars had the Nazi’s threatening to conquer the world. Today, we have Islam attempting the take over the world. Fanatics such as the one above will not rest until everyone bows down to Allah. Everyone else is to die. I do not believe this is a universal Islamic way of thinking, however it is allowed to occur without any serious opposition which implicates the entire religion for the crimes committed by the few. The “moderate” Islamic people fear reprisal on themselves and their families from these ignorant fools as much or more than the rest of western civilizations. I believe that is why they remain as silent as they are. Governments also fear the Islamic terror machine going as far as to destroy a man’s career for drawing a political cartoon featuring Mohammed. These creatures are adept at keeping the rest of civilization on their toes. Every so often they change the rules of the game just enough to create panic in societies thousands of kilometers away.

As the Joker said:

Nobody panics when things go “according to plan.” Even if the plan is horrifying! If, tomorrow, I tell the press that, like, a gang banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it’s all “part of the plan.” But when I say that one little old mayor will die, well then everyone loses their minds!”

So true.


Libya television station under siege

I want to warn you, the following video is disturbing. A reporter at al-Libiyah channel has decided to fight the rebels if they attempt to take over the state-run television station.

“With this weapon, I either kill or die today, you will not take al-Libiyah channel. You won’t take Jamahiriyah channel, Shababiyah channel, Tripoli or all of Libya, and even those without a weapon are willing to be a shield in order to protect their colleagues at this channel. We are willing to become martyrs.” (translation courtesy of  Al-Jazeera)

When will these people learn that bloodshed is not the answer? Life is more important than a silly television station. I can’t help draw parallels to the coveted position of martyrdom that is promoted by Islam. But how could being killed defending an oppressive state-run television station constitute martyrdom? This is not a noble act.

Libya NEEDS reform. Bottom line is the dictator Gaddafi must be removed from power.

Please Mrs Reporter Lady, put down the gun and stand aside. Your life is not worth losing over your job. I beg you, lay down your arms.


This is why we need women in skepticism!

There is a lot of post-Elevatorgate buzz about women in skepticism, including the announcement of a conference to specifically deal with women in secularism, more specifically the lack thereof. A lot of people who think that this is a non-issue have said that women (and other minorities in skepticism) will join the movement when they want to, that women simply aren’t interested in hearing about it. (And if you don’t think people actually believe this, please read the comments on the “Women in Secularism” announcement.) Since secularism is about self-improvement and education, I’m going to call Bullshit! on that. Yes, part of the problem is an environment in secularism that is intimidating to women, a lack of prominence for female skeptics, and so on. But the inverse of that is the amount of woo that is promoted to women.

Manitoba women use the health care system more than men, averaging 5.4 physician visits annually (4.4 for men), and 85% of women see a physician at least annually (79% for men.) Even healthy women of reproductive age receive birth control from their physician, have annual Pap tests, get mammograms, have prenatal consultations, and use health care services before, during and after childbirth. Women who are sick visit their physicians more frequently than men with similar illnesses. Women are more likely to be injured due to domestic violence (1 in 5 Manitoban women have been victimized by their partner in the last five years). Women are more likely to be proactive with their health, seeking screening and taking preventative measures more often than men. Now here’s the scary bit: almost 1 in 5 women in Manitoba consulted a CAM practitioner in 2003 (the most recent data). Only 1 in 10 men did the same! These statistics are in reality even worse, as the analysis excluded chiropractic, which partially covered by the province and therefore “not alternative.” Women are more preoccupied with their health, more concerned with prevention, and therefore more likely to be taken in by quacks.

Here’s a figure from the report I’m getting my data from:

The higher the household income, the more likely the women would seek CAM (here denoted CAHC for "health care"). Men did not seek more care as it became financially feasible.

In other words, as women were able to afford it, likely due to both increased income and increased private insurance coverage with the better paying jobs, more women were using CAM. I certainly would be interested to see if the discrepancy is access in lower income brackets, or a lack of awareness.

Well, maybe, you helpfully offer, chronically ill women are more likely to use CAM, and the wealth changes represent their ability to try unproven treatments for their disease! Nay nay….

The majority of women using CAM are healthy!

So what now? We have a bunch of healthy, wealthy women who are out there spending money on homeopathy and reiki and healing meditation and detox regimens and spiritual communicators. Why is it our problem if women want to waste their money on unproven crap? Well, because it’s not right, and it’s not fair. We don’t teach girls to ask questions, we tell them to trust authority, we tell them that their problems aren’t important, we tell them that they’re not an important part of the skeptical community, and then we proceed to laugh at them for finding a sympathetic ear and falling prey to placebo effects!

Worst of all, thanks to “integrative” “medicine,” woo is pervading our hospitals. While walking through the Women’s Health Centre, I saw a poster for upcoming health workshops being hosted at the Centre that made me do a double take. Yes, sponsored by Alberta Health Services, you can take a $40, 2-hour workshop in Reiki (“massage for your soul!”), a $190, 12-hour class in Feng Shui, or a $48, 3-hour workshop entitled, I kid you not, “Talking to Your Angels and Learning How to Listen,” run by Sandy Day, who claims to be a Reiki Master, Shaman, and Intuitive Healer. This is not some backwoods hand-waving Natural Healing Centre Of Happiness and Puppy Dog Kisses, this is at the biggest teaching hospital in the city, the centre for the high-risk pregnancies, for breast cancer: the medical hub! Or, on Wednesday, September 17th from 7-9 pm, the classroom for “Energy Medicine – The Internal World.” Oh but don’t worry, in tiny text:

Women’s Health Resources does not support, endorse or recommend any method, treatment, product, remedial center, program or person. We do, however, endeavour to inform because we believe in the right to have access to available information in order to make informed individual choices.

Now, call me skeptical, but I’m pretty sure if I wander over to the Urology clinic, I somehow doubt that I will see the same advertisements promising healing touch lessons for prostate problems.

For more than one reason, really. (zpeckler@flikr)

If we don’t teach our girls to question, and if we don’t ask our women to think, stuff like this is only going to get worse. No amount of half-assed disclaimery is going to change the fact that misinforming anyone is the opposite of giving them an informed individual choice. Talking about the dangerous of being teleported to Neptune by devious extraterrestrial cows does not come into discussions of which car you’d like to buy. Yes, you should be aware of the pros and cons of every car, and yes you should be free to make that choice, but having some random loon come in off the street to convince people that our Bovine Neptunian Overlords only abduct people who drive Chevies is pretty much the opposite of informed consent, particularly if the random loon also happens to sell Toyotas. Why is the Women’s Health Centre not bringing in drug companies to give presentations on why everyone should be taking Lipitor? Perhaps because there is a major conflict of interest when you are essentially charging people to sit through a sales pitch? And this is actually a bad example, because at least Lipitor actually has demonstrable, independently reproducible benefits!

So yes, we do need more women in skepticism. We need women standing up for themselves, saying that they are tired of all this bullshit being thrown at them. Without female allies telling Oprah to go stuff herself and Dr. Oz to take his reiki elsewhere, the skepticism movement will never succeed at exposing fraud in CAM. Women’s voices don’t just deserve to be heard in skepticism, they need to be heard, for the sake of everyone’s health.

Ethical family planning, or, In which I ask a lot of rhetorical questions I can’t answer.

Being of a childbearing age in a committed relationship leads to a lot of pressing questions of a child-bearing nature. I, personally, don’t find the concept attractive for a myriad of reasons (pragmatic and emotional). The most frequent excuse I give to the well-meaning baby-loving types is my genetics – I come from a family history of early onset cancers of a few different varieties, auto-immune disease, and genetic high cholesterol, in addition to my own general feebleness and frailty. My significant other has a similar family history, with inflammatory bowel disease and diabetes thrown in there for extra fun. Neither of us are particularly healthy specimens of our species, and I’m quite content with removing myself from the gene pool of an already over populated planet.

I have always thought to myself that truly, passing on my sad, feeble, recessive genes could nearly be called child cruelty, given the nearly inevitable poor health any such offspring would have. We live in the age of genetics, of genome sequencing, of really cool new breakthroughs that can accurately identify genetic predispositions to everything from HIV susceptibility to autism spectrum disorders to that thing that some people can do where they fold their tongue up all funny.

Doing this is a dominant trait. I can't do this (or other tongue folds.) Damn you, recessive genes! (Photo from volver-avanzar on Flickr)

In any case, it’s gotten to the point where numerous companies have popped up to do private DNA testing to “screen” for specific genetics (the majority of which are useless for determining your health, like your blood type, and the ability to fold your tongue, both of which can be determined in a cheaper and much more practical way.) In any case, there certainly exists the distinct possibility that in the not-too-distant future, everyone will be screening for genetic susceptibilities to disease, because we all certainly have them, and certainly they can be important for making family planning decisions. If you and your partner are both carriers for a particular risk factor, 25% of your children will receive a double hit of that risk factor, or worse, have full-blown disease. Some might question whether that is something that we should know, but I think that’s a silly question to ask. Sticking your head in the sand because you’re afraid of the implications solves nothing. People are welcome to make their own decisions for their own health, but when you are talking about the theoretical health of your theoretical child, I don’t think ignorance is appropriate. If you and your partner are both carriers of infant Tay-Sachs disease, a progressive and painful genetic condition which results in children typically dying horribly by three years old, you should probably take that into consideration when thinking about having children. Having a severely disabled child that you know that you will outlive is not a burden that every couple is prepared to take on. But what about if your children will be at increased risk for breast cancer or stroke? At what point do you switch from having a “healthy” child to a “sick” child, especially when the majority of us have multiple genetic risk factors and carry potentially lethal but extremely rare genes that we are simply unaware of? And if we are all genetically “sick,” then hasn’t the word lost all meaning?

Would your fear of passing on the BRCA1 (Breast cancer 1) gene play into your desire to have children? And if it would, are you equally worried about the alleles that we don’t even know about yet? And if it wouldn’t, at what point would it become a factor? And how much of a guarantee do you need before it becomes a consideration? Does 25% worry you, or does it need to get to 50% or 75% before you give it a prominent spot in your mind? What about 100%?

Even more interesting is an experience I had today with an individual with a serious genetic disorder. His life is full of doctors’ appointments and treatments to keep him alive, and 100% of his children will be carriers, in addition to having milder symptoms themselves. Would you have a child if you knew that it would be sick? And perhaps more importantly, if you were sick yourself and unsure if you would be able to be around to help raise them?

I don’t know the answers to any of these questions – clearly, in a lot of situations, environment plays a large role, and that is something you can change to prevent issues. There is screening and increased vigilance for those genetically at risk. I think it is safe to say that carrying a risk factor for something that is by-and-large environmentally based, like cardiovascular disease, is something that wouldn’t prohibit most people from having a child. Being assured that all children would be miscarried or stillborn is probably something that would prohibit most people from having children, to save themselves the emotional trauma. There is a line between those, but where, and how much does it move between individuals, over time, over situations? And truly, how can you ever know what the right thing to do is without asking the person it will affect the most?

These are the sort of questions that run through my mind – feel free to answer them with your opinion and how you derived that answer. My feeling is that parents should be emotionally, physically and financially prepared to cope with a child with potential congenital abnormalities, but as long as they go into it with hearts and eyes open, who am I to interfere? And if they do not have the resources to care for a potentially ill child and so abstain from having children, who am I to look down my nose? I would say that it is morally undesirable to willfully have children with genetic problems is if that family is unable or unwilling to provide appropriate care and support for that child, much as you would say for any child, only accounting for the increased amount of care necessary. Apart from that, feel free to have kids when you like, with whomever you like, as many times as you would like.

Just, please, before you do: think of the children.

Mommas don’t let your babies grow up to be Fundamentalist Christians

For all those interested, the following story is worth reading. http://motherjones.com/politics/2011/08/new-bethany-ifb-teen-homes-abuse

When I was young I went to a bible camp. I can say it was nothing like what Kathryn Joyce wrote about, per say. I think the worst I had to endure, other than the constant Christian subliminal brainwashing, was the milk served at meals. Every meal came with a glass of powdered milk. Every drop had to be consumed or you where not allowed to leave the table. I wonder what was in that “milk”.

Archie and the Gang are up to no good. Tune in next time when Jughead eats all the wafers.

I nearly died in that camp as well. The camp was located next to a lake and there were daily swimming sessions which were monitored by an adult. When walking along the bottom of the section designated for swimming I lost my footing and went under water. Luckily I was pulled out, resuscitated and proceeded to cough out water.

Still, nothing I can relate to compares to the horror that these young women go through. Young girls may rebel, may fight and swear, but no one deserves this torture. I you know someone who is currently rebelling, help them. Just talking about issues may actually accomplish something. Refer them to secular counselling that will look at what is actually going on, rather than attempting to exorcise demons.

If you know of a parent who is thinking of sending their child to a place like this, forward them this article. Hopefully they cringe and decide to see professional help as opposed to spiritual help.


Women’s equality. Am I privileged?

I am a man. I scratch what itches. I belch on occasion after a beer or several large meat sandwiches. I grow moderate amounts of facial hair to which I must shave off once a week to maintain my youthful visage. I like guns but not hunting. I think anything covered in barbeque sauce is instantly better similar to everything becoming that much more awesome the second you add more power or give the item power. Power rakes for example are sweet but are even sweeter when you hook it up to an alcohol fuelled race car engine. I even sit on the couch with my hand in the waist of my pants (I believe this is an evolutionary behaviour as it resembles protecting genitalia from harm by, for example, a pouncing dog, and true story).

Even I dress up some days.

So when I read that women are going to have their own secular conference , naturally I think, Fantastic. I bet you thought I was going to object. Anyone who says women should not have their own voice should not consider themselves human. Women are still emerging from under the heel of the boots of man and they should be expressing themselves in a venue that is geared towards their safety and solidarity.

Being that I am a thorough skeptic, I started to think. Is this conference the right idea? Does this conference have the unexpected side effect of division? After a 4-6 hour conversation with Flora on the subject while I drove across Canada (I lost track of time driving through Saskatchewan which was fantastic!), I felt that this may not be the best venue for discussion women’s rights in a secular community if the goal is to achieve an understanding between the sexes. Flora likened the conference to the human rights rallies associated with racial amalgamation. She inferred that a “Women in Secularism” conference was a venue to strategize and come up with a plan to deal with the sexism issue as a group of like-minded people (men are able to attend this conference as well). I was unconvinced. Are women somewhat special in the Secular community as to deserve special treatment that their male colleagues are not privy to? A simple solution would be to apply ideology expressed in modern professionalism to the attendees of any conference regardless of topic. Outlawing hook-ups at after parties is not the answer to indecent proposals at conferences. Adults should be treated like adults as long as they demonstrate respect. If they want to go off and have consenting sex then by all means. Why should I care?

I can see the side effects of separation and division associated with this conference that may have a ring of truth even if I don’t mirror the philosophy in my own dealings with women. I can see why the males of the community are upset; this meeting has an unfounded yet real feeling of guilt associated with it. Are we all misogynistic? I don’t think so, but shame resonated within me anyway.

In the event that we are going to blame males for all the ills regarding female treatment I would like to point out that it does take two to tango and, unless otherwise proven, both parties should be conscious of their actions when in a high-profile position. I am not implying that women are asking for this treatment but rather some women don’t want anything to change based on their actions. Similarly, some men are extremely sexist. That being said, I prefer to presume innocence of males until proven guilty, as there are plenty of good men out there who are subject to this “privilege” label that we, frankly, cannot comprehend. Either we are ignorant to the issue that we are apart of or not involved at all. The Winnipeg Skeptical community celebrates its equal representation of women and men by not drawing any attention to it, making sexism in their community a nonissue. It’s interesting to gossip but entirely boring to talk about at length, in my opinion, at one of our gatherings. We would much rather discuss diet and Dr.Oz quackery of the month. I am not saying that misogyny does not exist; rather it is outside this particular community’s comprehension.

Also, if this is a Secular conference for women’s rights in the secular community, why is this only community labelled with this issue? Is this not the main topic in all communities of a similar nature as of late? Should the CFI (Center for Inquiry) really be only promoting Women in Secularism or should they also include Atheism, Skepticism and humanism representatives?

And USB storage device manufacturers apparently

An article on this very subject was read to me by Flora as I drove. You can read it here. I understand that the dog, in this analogy, could not have a concept of cold with such a large fur coat. But I also feel that the Lizard did not communicate her discomfort with enough of an assertive tone for the dog to understand. I also think the lizard could bridge the gap between the dog and herself by utilizing education and experience. The lizard should have engaged the dog in an open discussion with the goal of finding a solution (not that she didn’t try but she managed to allow herself to be suppressed). I fully believe a solution could have been found so this story would have a happy ending.

My happy ending would consist of the understanding between both parties that they cannot exist with one another without compromise. For example, the lizard could have used the dog’s hair to make a coat to keep her warm (assuming the lizard can obtain enough heat to maintain its body temperature, as lizards are cold-blooded and need a heat source at all times to survive). Women are not cold-blooded, even if their feet are constantly freezing, so I feel the Lizard may have been a poor choice of animal by the author. I would have chosen a dog of equal size but having no fur. I would also make them, for the sake of the analogy genderless, as gender adds a dynamic that is unnecessary to the point. But a lizard was used so I will run with it. Removing the fur of the dog would have an interesting side effect. The dog would be able to experience cold! The temperature would have to rise to keep the dog warm. By working together to come to a solution both parties would not have the perfect arrangement but they would both be morally better off. The lizard would function normally in her new coat and the dog would gain some respect with a much-needed haircut. He may even be able to find a job and build the lizard her own desired biome within the house.

Women are marginalized by men. This is a fact. But it does not have to be the norm.

I can’t help feeling that “Elevator Gate” had something to do with a “Women in Secularism” conference. Not that it makes a difference what was the catalyst, as it is a topic that should be discussed, but undesired as the whole fiasco is and how sick of talking about it people are, it has made a real and lasting impact on the secular, atheist and skeptical communities. Nerds of the world have been forced to mature, socially, nearly overnight making the opposition to the change so powerful as to excrete ignorance. Do you blame them for their ignorant actions? Yes. I think though that all hope is not lost.

In response to the Elevator gate scandal JREF had implemented a zero tolerance policy at this years TAM9 in Las Vegas which was talked about by D.J. Grothe in a statement which said:

“We want TAM Las Vegas 2011 to be a welcoming experience for everyone who attends . . .

 Please respect your fellow attendees by not disparaging them based on unfair grounds such as race, gender, sexual orientation, and disability; and by not making uninvited sexual comments toward others.

 If someone asks you to leave them alone or to otherwise stop a behavior that is directed toward them, please do so. Continued unwanted behavior directed toward another person is harassment. People who harass others or cause multiple complaints of disrespectful behavior may be required to leave without a refund. 

 Problems can be reported to TAM staff or volunteers who will bring it to the attention of JREF management. A warning will be given when appropriate, but there will be zero tolerance for violence, physical intimidation, and unwanted intentional physical contact.”

 My personal belief is this should be a standard clause in the rule book of conferences. The CFI would do well if they adopted this mentality for all the conferences they put on. Women should feel welcome and accepted in a group dedicated to the acquisition of knowledge for the betterment of mankind. I put the word “mankind” in there for a reason and to demonstrate a point about how we think as a society.

It was not until the Khitomer accord that the United Federation of Planets (UFP) included all races and denominations in their slogan “To boldly go where no man has gone before”. The slogan was changed after the peace treaty when inducting another powerful race into the UFP to “To boldly go where no one has gone before” and rightly so. Neil Armstrong stated the famous phrase “That’s one small step for (a) man; one giant leap for mankind.” when stepping onto the surface of the moon. I wonder if that iconic statement would have had a different impact on how women are viewed today if it was more inclusive. Neil perhaps did not state these iconic words in such a way as to offend women, but he would have to confirm this assertion with me to be sure. This is an indicator that we (as a civilization) should also be looking at the everyday devices that we overlook to see if we too can be more inclusive. “Onekind” is awkward to say at best. “Everyone” sounds much better and has the added effect of being inclusive to, for lack of a better word, everyone. Humanity works just as well.

I hope everyone wakes up, as we are all to blame for the faults of our culture. I feel that we, as men, have plenty to gain from the women in our lives if we only just listen. Segregation or special accommodation is never the answer. Thinking of humanity in boys vs. girls, gays vs. straights, Able bodied vs. handicapped (I prefer “differently abled” as it does not degrade the worth of this group of people) or us vs. them has never and will never lead to the betterment of humanity. Only by working together and sharing ideas can the Homosapian species bring the walls of the chasm close enough together to enable bridges to be built. Eventually the canyon representing the separation of people’s will be nothing more than a footnote in the history books.

If I can change so can you. I am a person. I scratch what itches. I belch on occasion after a beer or….


Of note: An amazing woman in my life instilled in me two concepts; the ends don’t justify the means and respect the women in your life. I hold both truths close to my chest, the latter being deserved until proven otherwise. I also go one step farther and respect the humanity in my life, unless proven otherwise. I cannot blindly follow the rules. In this case, the rules which state women are the weaker sex grossly are incorrect, which just so happens to be another lesson this woman taught me. Thanks Mom!

Apparently, creationists love me

I don’t know whether I should be flattered that I appear to be that notable, or offended that my points seem to be so categorically missed. First the wrath of the geocentrists, now this.

So, way back this spring we took a gander on down to Winnipeg’s Creation Museum – yes, it exists, and yes, it is in a church basement, and yes, the church is full of people who believe in a literal Genesis story (which one, it’s still not quite clear), replete with Adam and Eve and plant-eating T-Rexes. There was a question and answer period after the tour of the “museum” (room). John Feakes, the pastor of the church, was an amiable, genuinely nice guy, but he was espousing some very odd interpretations of reality, including those which even Answers in Genesis has distanced itself (like the “human” tracks along side dinosaurs at the Paluxy River, which are pretty much irrefutably also the tracks of dinosaurs. Or you could go with giant humans with feet that look remarkably dinosaur-like in nature. Sure.)

In any case, in the question period, I asked him something along the lines of how he could refute the molecular evidence for evolution – that evolution predicts structural homology, that was used to create trees of life, and molecular biology has been used to confirm those exact same trees of life (with a few surprises which now explain a lot more about how life evolved). His response… well, I’ll let him tell the story in a lecture that he gave to the faithful. (This comes in at about the 51 minute mark)

Now I locked horns with a couple of atheist groups now, uh, last… year? They came out to see me. We talked for five hours on evolution and creation and all that kinda stuff. And one girl, she stood up at Q&A time, and she was very adamant, she said “I’m a scientist, and evolution has been proven, and now we can draw family trees based on the molecular data, and it’s just so scientific.”

And I said “Okay, just a minute here. Umm you’re telling me now, did whales evolve from galloping terrestrial mammals like cows, or something else? Right? Okay now, and we got into this whole thing where now the new molecular data shows they actually evolved from hippo-like creatures. [Sarcastic] Right.

I said “Okay, so are you saying that your family tree based on how these things look got replaced by a tree based on the molecular data?”

She said “Yes, that’s true.”

I said, “Okay, now, I want to tell you what Dr. Klassen said, because he is a flag-waving evolutionist. He was out debating creationists; he debated Duane Gish, back in the 80’s.” I said, “he said ‘If these things don’t line up, evolution’s been falsified.'”

[mimicking me with incredulous sputtering] Well that’s just his opinion and… [trails off]

Well, I’m not going to say he misrepresented me because I think he is more honest than most creationists – notice the “cow-like” and “hippo-like” animal references, rather than crocoduck accusations. He also prefaces this reference to me by talking about how the morphological tree of life based on morphology is rubbish, that it’s been thrown out and taken back to square one with the evolutionary tree. This is of course, completely false. Here’s a 2009 paper from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) that looked at just that – comparing molecular to morphological data in mammals and molluscs. It turns out, in the overwhelming majority of genus, we were spot on with our homology data, or a single branch got bumped to another genus. Keep in mind that this is specific stuff here, it’s distinguishing between Homo sapiens, Homo habilis, Homo neanderthalensis, etc. Of our entire genus, one branch would be booted out and go, no, that’s really not as closely related to those as we thought, they’re better suited to say, Australopithecus.

The Tyrrell Museum is my favourite museum ever. Seriously, if you've not been, go. There's a great exhibit on evolution right now. (Plus lots of other fantastic things)

Of course, this is not a perfect analogy as from my understanding of the paper it was referring to only living species – however, consider that there are 20 species of common house mouse in the Mus genus presently, and any movement of those branch points to a different genus (say, a field mouse) counts as a hit. 65.8% of the time, molecular biology confirms exactly what we had figured out by phylogeny. 65.8% of the time! And this is being extraordinarily stringent, allowing for no minor corrections. If you include these minor corrections (a single species being moved from field mouse to house mouse origins, or inclusion of other branches which were thought to have diverged earlier), we were now right 87.3% of the time. What are the odds of a random, incorrect theory based on wild assertion getting two completely separate, independently verified pieces of data to agree 87.3% of the time. The other 12.7% of the time where we were wrong? Well these are the surprises that John Feakes points out. Look at this 12.7%, he says, and please ignore the 87.3% of the time that they got it right. Keep in mind, also, that this is from within Classes – certainly no mammals were being shown to be more genetically similar to molluscs or vice versa.

This seems like a good time for a happy dinosaur break.

So yes, I did agree that the whale was a surprise. Yes, I should have been able to form a better argument than saying it’s an appeal to authority (but truly, it was the first time I’ve ever encountered the “so-and-so said” technique and was shocked by it.) None of that changes the fact that, the majority of the time, we were absolutely right. And the overwhelming majority of the time, we were very nearly right. No amount of personal incredulity will change the fact the odds of this happening by mere chance are extraordinarily low (p=0.029).

Which are, shockingly, still better odds than your family ever having taken a recreational slide down Apatosaurus' neck

In fact, the authors of this papers state that “These results likely represent a worst-case scenario for morphogenus monophyly. Much of the compiled molecular work focused on ‘problem taxa,’ those known to be resistant to morphological analysis (e.g., freshwater bivalves, oysters, bovids).” These data are merely a conservative estimate on how right we were, based on data with a bias towards areas of morphological contention, and further works under the assumption that our genotyping techniques are perfect – and of course, errors are always possible. And they still were completely right in 65.8% of mammals.

If that isn’t evidence, I don’t know what is.

This was not my ancestors' family pet 6000 years ago, this is a the sort of thing that ate my shrew-like ancestors 20 millions years ago.

Oh, and as a final note, I resent being referred to as a “girl.” It implies immaturity, it’s condescending and it’s dismissive. It makes me sound like I’m playing dress up with big-girl pants. No one would refer to the guys who stood up to ask questions as “boys.” I don’t think it’s too much to ask to request the same level of respect.

Integrative and allopathic medicine: a skeptical medical student’s rant

It’s no mystery that I am not a fan of CAM (complementary and alternative medicine), and not because I’m a Big Pharma Shill or been brainwashed by exhaustive campaigns by evil corporations. It’s not that I hate herbs, hate Chinese people, and hate things that are different that I don’t understand. The majority of the time I spent in a research laboratory (5 years, including time as a summer student), I spent it doing research into nutrition and functional foods. I worked with people studying the biochemical effects of exercise on health. I understand the role of preventative medicine and lifestyle interventions more than most people and I strongly advocate them. As part of, you know, medicine.

The term “allopathic medicine” was coined by Samuel Hahnemann, who contrasted it with, unsurprisingly for those of you who recognize the name, homeopathic medicine. It’s a derivative term from the Greek word allos meaning other, implying that the treatment opposes the disease, in contrast to homeos (“like”) cures. That homeopathy continues to persist 168 years after Samuel Hahnemann is a farce – that it is presented to medical students without any iota of explanation or critical thought is a tragedy. Observe:

From the AFMC (Association of Faculties of Medicine of Canada) Primer on Population Health, required reading for my class, with the offending phrases bolded by me:

Contemporary Western medicine is increasingly being challenged to consider how to respond to perspectives and treatments other than those of conventional allopathic medicine. One response has been to propose ‘integrative medicine’ as a collaboration between biomedical approaches and other healing traditions, including herbal remedies, manual interventions such as massage therapy or chiropractic, and mind-body practices such as hypnosis. Similarly, the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine trains naturopathic doctors who employ natural therapies as well as using the more standard medical diagnostics of allopathic medicine.

Integrative medicine is about changing the focus in medicine to one of healing rather than disease. This involves an understanding of the influences of mind, spirit, and community as well as of the body…
…Whereas allopathy implies opposing the symptoms of disease, homoepathy implies working with the disease by stimulating the body to produce its natural defensive (e.g., immune) responses.For a time during the mid-nineteenth century, homeopathy (treating like with like) was a serious rival to the allopathic approach, but the development of the germ theory gave allopathy a scientific foundation for many of its remedies. However, by the mid twentieth century disillusionment began when, despite advances in ‘the conquest of infectious disease’ hospitals remained full and waiting lists stayed long. This may have reflected a rising demand for care induced by the perception of its success, but the very success of allopathic medicine (along with improved social conditions) enabled people to live long enough to suffer degenerative diseases for which the allopathic approach is less effective. Moreover, the allopathic approach has some undesired consequences including the rapid increases in costs and the large numbers of people with iatrogenic disorders.2 While allopathic remedies are often highly effective, practitioners are also aware that the best cure may be for the patient to simply restore balance in their life and get adequate sleep, exercise, and good nutrition.

Did you spot all the devious false equivalences and straw men drawn there? Did you notice the bait and switch set up with massage therapy being touted as alternative? Integrative medicine is not a collaboration between biomedical approaches and “other healing traditions” – it’s the infusion of pseudoscience into science. There is no need to worry about traditions when designing a treatment program. You figure out what works best, and you use it. We don’t continue to give people radium for high blood pressure simply because some people in the past thought it was a nifty neat-o idea! Notice also the mention of naturopaths as if they were an equivalent but separate kind of doctor, as if drinking powdered deer horn tea had the same level of efficacy as prescribing a statin.

The idea that “allopathic” medicine is focused on disease rather than healing is a ridiculous notion that I am ashamed to see presented by the people who are overseeing the curricula of this country’s medical schools. In my first week here, the concepts of the spectrum from health to disease, the need for population-based intervention, and the need to treat patients as individuals and not diseases has already come up. We’ve also already talked about treatment – but what is the point of talking about treatment if you don’t understand the disease? I mean, it’s all well and good that Mrs. Johnson comes in vomiting blood all over, but I’m pretty sure that thinking hard about being healthy and taking a nap isn’t going to prevent her form going into hemorrhagic shock! Only once you understand the disease can  you design a treatment. If you think her vomiting blood is from possession by an evil forest spirit, you’re going to proceed quite a bit differently than if you realize that Mrs. Johnson has a ruptured blood vessel in her stomach. The whole purpose of medicine is to achieve wellness! No amount of pre-scientific thinking or feel-good nonsense is going to save Mrs. Johnson’s life!

And of course, the criticisms that because “allopathic” medicine works so well, now people are living long enough to deal with issues that it can’t treat. So, when Mr. Wong comes into your clinic, presenting with symptoms of Alzheimer’s, clearly the only answer is to abandon the system that works really well at everything else, and try some random stuff that has no evidence to support it. This is the same sort of tactic that creationists use in the “God of the gaps” arguments. We don’t know, so God did it. We don’t know, so let’s use reiki. The absence of evidence for something does not mean you get to fill in the blanks with your chosen brand of unsupported beliefs. If there is a gap in our knowledge about what to do with an Alzheimer’s patient, we should research into causes (and subsequently treatments) of Alzheimer’s disease. Plausible, mechanism-based treatments. They don’t need to be drugs; there’s been psychological-behavioural research being done into mental training exercises (most of which has come up short in translating to increased everyday functionality.) Maybe we need to do more to prevent head trauma injures like concussions during sports activities. Maybe we should look at how alcohol and drug abuse can lead to dementia later in life. All of these are well within the realm of medicine, and require no magical thinking. They are testable hypotheses and should be pursued. Until we have an answer, you don’t get to fill the gaps with the nonsense du jour.

Did you also notice that homeopathy is given a one-off vaguely plausible sounding mechanism without any sort of definition as to what it might be? They make it sound like homeopathy is like vaccination, dealing with it not only credulously but dishonestly. How many students are going to read that claim, assume it correct, and go on to think that is is a perfectly legitimate form of medicine?

It’s unsurprising that they also bring up iatrogenic diseases, which can be literally translated to mean “healer-caused” diseases. These diseases range from anemia due to excessive blood draws in the hospital, to hospital-aquired (nosocomial) infections, to potentially lethal drug side effects. They are a major issue in medicine, especially when they are preventable, as in nosocomial infections (which can be prevented by proper cleanliness techniques) or worse, when someone screws up. There are failsafes in place for mistakes, and are why hospitals have adopted a team approach, but they inevitably will happen. However, this is not an argument for throwing the whole system, which we’ve already established works quite well. This is an argument for making the system better, for preventing the mistakes, for increasing communication within a team, for finding more failsafe systems, for being pro-active. The system isn’t broken, it’s just not perfect. You shouldn’t replace something that works but has side effects with something that doesn’t work but has none, especially since the lack of side effects are due to the fact that it doesn’t work. 

This is, of course, also assuming that “traditional” medicine has no side effects, which the anti-vaccine crowd has shown us that it can have. Eschewing modern medicine kills people. If people forsake their family physician for a naturopath, they will cannot be given prescriptions if they need them. If Mr. Sullivan is an overweight, 58-year old pencil pusher with genetic high cholesterol and an impending heart attack, then advocating a healthy diet and more exercise is important. But given his genetic preponderance and his previously sedentary lifestyle, no amount of oatmeal will help. In addition to lifestyle counselling, he desperately needs pharmaceutical intervention, possibly stenting to keep his heart’s blood vessels open, and an intensive monitoring of his blood lipids. If he dies of that heart attack, and the naturopath did not refer him to a physician when first line defences fail, that naturopath is responsible for his death. Just as letting someone get hit by a bus because you don’t want to rumple their suit jacket makes your failure to act lethal, so does dependence on pre-scientific thinking while avoiding science-based medicine cause people to die. Naturopathy, at its core, is based on true principles (that we get drugs from the natural world, there’s a science based on it called pharmacognosy), but in practice is little more than hand-waving, placebo-effecting ridiculousness. On the Canadian Association for Naturopathic Doctors, the website linked to by the AFMC’s primer, they recommend for colds & flus:

To aid the elimination of toxins through the skin induce perspiration by taking long hot baths, using an infra-red sauna or steam room. Increasing perspiration through the skin is one of the safest and most effective ways of eliminating toxins.

You know, unless you get dehydrated and die.  I hear that making people who have a fever sweat even more is really sound medical advice. To get rid of toxins. Right.

So no, Association for the Faculties of Medicine of Canada, I don’t think that we should consider integrative medicine and the “treatment of mind, body and spirit” in our practice. A doctor is not a shaman, nor should they attempt to be. I think physicians should be compassionate, caring, understanding, attentive, and open with their patients. They should be concerned for their patient’s autonomy, their mental health, and their feelings. They should strive to give them the best care, based on the best evidence available.

TL;DNR: I don’t think that there is any room, when people’s lives are at stake, for bullshit.


Update: Somebody famous read this article and liked it enough to link it on their Twitterfeed! Scott Gavura (@PharmacistScott), blogger of Science-Based Pharmacy and occasional writer for Science-Based Medicine.