June 2009


Perusing our friend Timberwraith’s blog, Haunted Timber, I came across an amazing story I had to share. It is about two 24 year old Swedish parents who are raising their child not as a boy or a girl, but as a child. I recommend reading what Timberwraith had to say here. You can go here to read the story in english, or here for some Swedish.

Let me start by saying that this was not intended to be a Pseudoscience Chronicles post (I just enjoyed the story) until I read what one of the interviewees had to say ten paragraphs in. I was shocked at first by what Susan Pinker said (in the english version of the story), but then was not surprised to find out that she is a psychologist and journalist:

“Ignoring children’s natures simply doesn’t work,” says Susan Pinker, a psychologist and newspaper columnist from Toronto, Canada, who wrote the book The Sexual Paradox, which focuses on sex differences in the workplace.’

‘“Child-rearing should not be about providing an opportunity to prove an ideological point, but about responding to each child’s needs as an individual,” Pinker tells The Local.’

It’s ironic how she claims that raising a child should be about responding to each child’s individual needs, then goes on to say we should force children into preconceived gender-roles. If anything, keeping the child’s sex a secret allows the parents to respond to their child’s actual needs rather than the artificial needs implanted by a cultural construction that attempts to fit every single person in the world into one of two restricted categories. So I guess what she was actually trying to say was that child-rearing should only be about providing an opportunity to prove an ideological point if that ideological point is ‘gender exists get used to it’.

Pinker goes on to make some more crazy claims:

‘“I don’t think that trying to keep a child’s sex a secret will fool anyone, nor do I think it’s wise or ethical,” says Pinker. “As with any family secret, when we try to keep an elemental truth from children, it usually blows up in the parent’s face, via psychosomatic illness or rebellious behaviour.”’

Of course, the parents are not keeping any truth from the child (I don’t even know how they would do that). They are simply allowing the child to grow into what it wants to be.  They are responding to their child’s needs as an individual. They are being good parents.

With that, I would like to welcome Susan Pinker to the Pseudoscience Chronicles.

-Bryan Perkins

(Header Image: Hijras India’s Third Gender)

Sophie, an author from the old Science. Why not?, has a shiny new wordpress blog as well. She calls it A Wonderful Day for Anthropology. Here is a little from the About page:

‘Originally interested in Psychology and Sociology, I finally found my calling in the holistic field of Anthropology.  Although I haven’t declared a concentration, I anticipate this blog will be a helpful resource. I hope to explore Archaeological, Biological, Cultural, and Linguistic Anthropology to the fullest extent and learn from others who share my passion for the field.’

You can find her first post here. Read it, leave comments, and enjoy. I know I will.

-Bryan Perkins

I don’t read Time Magazine much, but I recently acquired some old issues and I found one I would like to share with everyone. On February 23 Time printed the ‘Mind & Body Special Issue: How Faith Can Heal’, and I had a few problems with the article entitled ‘The Biology of Belief‘ by Jeffrey Kluger.

The article begins with a subtitle that sets the stage for the rest of the piece:

‘Science and religion argue all the time, but they increasingly agree on one thing: a little spirituality may be very good for your health.’

From the start we can smell the agenda behind Kluger’s words. ‘Scientists increasingly agree’ likely means that there have been a couple of new studies published attempting to convince us that any correlation between spirituality, in the broadest sense of the word, and health absolutely proves causation. ‘A little spirituality is good for your health’ will likely be transformed into ‘religion heals ills when medicine just can’t do it’. But let’s try not to make too many presumptions yet.

In the first two paragraphs Kluger claims that the parietal lobe makes ‘your brain the spiritual amusement park it can be.’ He obviously knows the names and locations of some brain regions, but he gives no clear description of what each lobe does and how they produce a ‘spiritual amusement park’ in your brain. Either he hopes to explain it to us later, or we just have to take his word for it.

Five paragraphs into the article we finally get to it. ‘A growing body of scientific evidence suggest that faith may indeed bring us health.’ Boom! ‘People who attend religious services have a lower risk of dying in any one year than people who don’t attend.’ Boom! ‘People who believe in a loving God fare better after a diagnosis of illness than people who believe in a punitive God.’ Boom!?!

Kluger does the arguing for me in the very next paragraph:

‘You live longer if you go to church because you’re there for the cholesterol-screening drive and nurse visiting service. Your viral load goes down when you include spirituality in your fight against [disease] because your levels of cortisol–a stress hormone–go down first.’

Faith and religion are not what is causing an increase in life expectancy, there is nothing supernatural about it. There is no reason to use spirituality and religion to explain coincidental correlation.

But Bryan, didn’t you read? ‘People who believe in a loving God fare better after a diagnosis of illness than people who believe in a punitive God.’ Who cares? This tells me nothing. Do people who believe in a loving God live longer than those who believe in a punitive God, or do they simply take the news better when they are told that they are going to die? If they don’t survive longer, then this has nothing to do with the effect of spirituality on physical health. This evidence simply compares two subsets of spiritual people who believe in different types of God. On the one hand spirituality is good for you but on the other it isn’t good for you. Faith can heal, but only the right faith. All this does is underle the subjectivity of religion. I wonder how atheists fare after being diagnosed with an illness, but I am sure that didn’t fit with the intended message of Kluger’s article.

IT’S ALL IN YOUR HEAD

Kluger then goes on to discuss the work of Dr. Andrew Newberg a professor of radiology, psychology, and religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania. ‘Newberg and his team have come to recognize just which parts of the brain light up during just which experiences.’ (By this I assume that Kluger means they took brain scans of individuals performing particular activities and determined which areas were in use when). Yet again this holds no support for the idea that faith and spirituality will give you good health. We merely see that for every activity that we as humans perform, there is some region of our brain that is involved.

Not only did Newberg and Team determine which areas are involved in each task, they also scanned the brains of people before and after meditation training. What they found was that meditation training increased the size of certain lobes of the brain, and as the lobes bulked up memory improved. In other words, intense mind training increases the size and functionality of a person’s brain. (No $&!# Sherlock?)

Of course there was no comparison between the improvement of a person who was subjected to calculus training or learned how to play a musical instrument, I am sure they too would have an increase in brain size and memory capacity. But who cares about finding all of the evidence when the evidence you have now supports the hypothesis that you want to be correct?

Kluger goes on to describe ‘one of the staples of traditional wellness protocols and traditional religious rituals the cleansing fast, which is said to purge toxins in the first case and purge sins or serve other pious ends in the second.’ And again, in the very next paragraph, he explains and then immediately dismisses science that counters his claim that spirituality (in this instance fasting) is healthful:

‘The brain is a very energy-intensive organ, one that requires a lot of calories to keep running. When food intake is cut, the liver steps into the breach, producing glucose and sending it throughout the body — always making sure the brain gets a particularly generous helping. The liver’s reserve lasts only about 24 hours, after which, cells begin breaking down the body’s fats and proteins — essentially living off the land. As this happens, the composition of the blood — including hormones, neurotransmitters and metabolic by-products — changes. Throw this much loopy chemistry at a sensitive machine like the brain and it’s likely to go on the blink. “There are very real changes that occur in the body very rapidly that might explain the clarity during fasting,” says Dr. Catherine Gordon, an endocrinologist at Children’s Hospital in Boston. “The brain is in a different state even during a short-term fast.” Biologically, that’s not good…’

Biologically fasting is not good for your health; even if the ‘light-headed sense of peace, albeit brief, that comes with it reinforces the fast and [seemingly] rewards you for engaging in it all the same.’ So far that is the most revelatory news I have read in this article. Not because it wasn’t obvious that fasting is not good for your health in the first place. Rather because the most concrete evidence that Kluger has presented thus far is the exact opposite of what he is trying to claim. He as shown only that spirituality (particularly fasting) is not good for your health.

HOW POWERFUL IS PRAYER

This is one of my favorite sections in this article. Kluger begins by telling us that most believers and very serious theologians ‘believe in the power of so-called intercessory prayer to heal the sick.’ Plus, Kluger tells us, some very serious scientists have ‘looked at’ this question as well. More than 6,000 studies have been published on the topic since 2000. I wonder which of these 6,000 studies Kluger will use to support the idea that prayer will help your health, let’s see:

‘As long ago as 1872, Francis Galton, the man behind eugenics and fingerprinting, reckoned that monarchs should live longer than the rest of us, since millions of people pray for the health of their King or Queen every day. His research showed just the opposite — no surprise, perhaps, given the rich diet and extensive leisure that royal families enjoy. An oft discussed 1988 study by cardiologist Randolph Byrd of San Francisco General Hospital found that heart patients who were prayed for fared better than those who were not. But a larger study in 2005 by cardiologist Herbert Benson at Harvard University challenged that finding, reporting that complications occurred in 52% of heart-bypass patients who received intercessory prayer and 51% of those who didn’t. Sloan says even attempting to find a scientific basis for a link between prayer and healing is a “fool’s errand” — and for the most basic methodological reason. “It’s impossible to know how much prayer is received,” he says, “and since you don’t know that, you can’t determine dose.”‘

Wait. So your saying the widely excepted research suggests that 52% of patients who did receive prayer suffered complications and 51% of people who did not receive prayer suffered complications. Meaning there is no significant difference between patients who recieve prayer and patients who don’t. So, again, spirituality is not helping.

Finally, Kluger goes on to discuss his only relevant scientific claim in this whole article, that of the placebo effect. If I opened up this issue and read a four page article about the placebo effect I would have no problem with it. They could mention that prayer, religion, faith, and spirituality can all have a placebo effect, but also that the placebo effect can be produced by much more. They would tell us that it can also be produced by sugar tablets, sham surgery, or belief in any false information (including that of faith and religion already discussed). They would not exaggerate the affectiveness of spirituality to undermine the truth that evidence supports. The fact that spirituality is about as good for your health as sugar pills.

In conclusion, welcome to The Pseudoscience Chronicles Jeffrey Kluger.

-Bryan Perkins

(Header Image: ‘Gris-gris‘ by: Charles M. Gandolfo; New Orleans Historic VooDoo Museum)

“The recent discovery that the hippocampus is able to generate new neurons throughout a human’s lifespan has changed the way we think about the mechanisms of psychiatric disorders and drug addiction,” says Wen Jian and colleagues in a study published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation in 2005. It appears that cannabinoids are able to modulate pain, nausea, vomiting, epilepsy, ischemic stroke, cerebral trauma, multiple sclerosis, tumors, and many other disorders. Cannabinoids act on two types of receptors, the CB1 receptors (found mainly in the brain) and the CB2 receptors (found mainly in the immune system). The CB1 receptor is one of the most abundant G protein coupled receptors in the mammalian brain and it accounts for most, if not all, of the centrally mediated effects of cannabinoids. Cannabionoid receptors are evolutionarily conserved amoung various vertebrates and invertebrates which have been separate for 500 million years.

Hippocampal neurogenesis is suppressed following chronic administration of the major drugs of abuse (including opiates, alcohol, nicotine, and cocaine). However, CB1-knockout mice display significantly decreased hippocampal neurogenesis, suggesting that CB1 receptors activated by endogenous, plant-derived, or synthetic cannabinoids may promote hippocampal neurogenesis.

Wen Jiang and colleagues have given the first evidence suggesting that both embryonic and adult hippocampal neural stem/progenitor cells (NS/PCs) express CB1 receptors. Cannabinoids can regulate the proliferation of hippocampal NS/PCs by acting on CB1 receptors. They found that both the synthetic cannabinoid HU210 and the endocannabinoid anandamide profoundly promote embryonic hippocampal NS/PC proliferation.

Chronic, but not acute, HU210 significantly increases the number of newborn hippocampal neurons in adult rats by promoting NS/PC proliferation. These promoting effects are not the outcome of hippocampal neuronal death, as no neuronal loss or dying hippocampal neurons were detected following chronic HU210 injection. A significant increase was observed in the hipoppocampal newborn neurons of mice following twice-daily HU210 injection for 10 days.

It has been shown that acute, high doses of cannabinoids produce anxiety-like effects in rats and depression-like effects in mice. But chronic administration of high, but not low, doses of HU210 exerts anxiolytic- and antidepressant-like effects. This suggests that cannabinoids are the only illicit drug that can promote adult hippocampal neurogenesis following chronic administration. “This increase in hippocampal neurogenesis underlies the mechanism of anxiolytic- and andtidepressant-like effects produced by a high dose chronic HU210 treatment.”

Source: Jiang W, Zhang Y, Xiao L, Cleemput JV, Ji S-P, Bai G, & Zhang X (2005). Cannabinoids promote embryonic and adult hippocampus neurogenesis and produce anxiolytic- and antidepressant-like effects. Journal of Clinical Investigation, 115, 3104-3116

(Header Image)

-Bryan Perkins

Here are some ‘funny’ cigarette ads from the Stanford School of Medicine website.  This is the kind of thing that really hurts the public’s trust of science.  Alas, enjoy:

It’s a Fact! Cigarettes embody an ‘energizing effect’, a quick restoration of the natural flow of body energy, and a delightful relief from fatigue and irritability. Not only that, but the ‘wholy natural’ and ‘utterly delightful’ energizing effect of Camel cigarettes has ‘recieved full scientific confirmation’.

‘So whenever you feel run down, tired and irritable, just light a Camel.’

‘You can smoke just as many of these delightful Camels as you want. You can increase your flow of energy over and over again. And you need never worry about your nerves. For remember: Camel’s costlier tobaccos never get on your nerves.’

Clear Evidence

‘Everyone knows that sunshine mellows – that’s why TOASTING includes the use of the Ultra Violet Ray. LUCKY STRIKE – the finest cigarette you ever smoked, made of the finest tobaccos – the Cream of the Crop – THEN“IT’S TOASTED” – Everyone knows that heat purifies and so TOASTING removes harmful irritants that cause throat irritation and coughing. No wonder 20,679 physicians have stated LUCKIES to be less irritating.’

‘Consistent with its policy of laying the facts before the public’, The American Tobacco Company invited one Mr. L. J. Horowitz to review the reports of the people who have witnessed Lucky Strike’s famous Toasting Process. Of course he has no scientific background to add credibility to his claim of ‘Clear Evidence’, but he is the Chairman of the Board for Thompson-Starrett Co., Inc. builders of the new Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, the Paramount Building, the Equitable Building, New York; the General Motors Building in Detroit, and the Palmer House in Chicago. That sure makes me want to trust his scientific opinion in this advertisement that gives his company almost as much publicity as the cigarettes.

Phillip Morris tobaccos are pasteurized for your protection and Thermo-vised for better taste. I guess pressure cooking might help keep the flavor in a cigarette, but I have no idea how pasteurization (or the previous toasting for that matter) would have any effect on how irritating a cigarette is when smoked. You burn the tobacco and breath the smoke either way.

This picture is best left described by the site:

‘Popular faith in medicine was exploited by a series of industry-sponsored “research” and “surveys.” In this era, before the coming of the atomic bomb, little of today’s cynicism concerning the abilities of science to overcome societal problems existed. To exploit this popular sentiment, the industry sponsored “research institutes” & scientific symposia, many of which amounted to little more than propaganda based upon dubious methodology. Health claims were then made on the basis of these supposed studies, as when Chesterfields were advertised (in 1952) with the assertion that “Nose, throat, and accessory organs [were] not adversely affected” after a six-month period of medical observation (including X-rays) by ear, nose, and throat specialists.’

‘A real scientist might be concerned about getting ashes on the microscope slide’

Bottom line, don’t trust advertisements. Something that ‘sounds reasonable’ or looks professional today could be laughed at and mocked for years to come. And, if you liked those science destroying cigarette advertisements you can see more pseudoscience related ads here at the Stanford School of Medicine website, just select view images by theme and you will see Pseudoscience as an option.  Also, you can look here if you want to see a large collection of tobacco ads that are not necessarily Science related. There you can search the ads by country, company, brand, or ad type (just select Camel if you want to see the infamous Joe). And finally, for any more of your tobacco knowledge needs, you can try here at the Tobacco Wiki. They are looking for your help to mine the millions of pages of previously-secret, internal tobacco industry documents now posted on the Internet.

-Bryan Perkins

Margarine of Error:I can't believe it's not better.Episode 1Flinstone Meets the Scientist

The Attini tribe rely solely on the cultivation of Fungus Gardens for food. When an Attine Daughter Queen leaves her maternal home, she must carry within her mouth a Nucleus of Fungus to serve as the Starting Culture for her new Garden (Schultz and Brady 2008).

THE DEVELOPMENT OF AGRICULTURE

In a paper published in PNAS in 2008, Schultz and Brady provide detailed insights into the transition from simple agriculture to complex agriculture of the Attini tribe. The study suggests the Attini first developed agriculture approximately 50 million years ago in the forests of South America, coinciding with the early Eocene climatic optimum (50-55 mya). During this time there was a period of global warming and an extraordinary diversity of tropical plants occurring at middle and high latitudes in South America. The methods used in Attine agriculture have been divided into five distinct systems:

1. Lower Agriculture (practiced by the majority of the Attine)
2. Coral Fungus Agriculture (practiced by the “Pilosum Group”)
3. Yeast Agriculture (practiced by the “Rimosus Group”)
4. Generalized Higher Agriculture (practiced by the “Higher Attine”)
5. Leaf Cutting Agriculture (practiced by the Atta and Acromyrmex)

(Schultz and Brady 2008)

All five systems of agriculture utilize remarkably proficient planting, manuring, weeding, and sheltering techniques (Mueller and Rabeling 2008).

LOWER AGRICULTURE

The original Attine agriculturalists collected withered plant bits and other debris on which to cultivate an unspecialized fungus that retained close genetic ties to free-living fungal populations (Mueller and Rabeling 2008). The “parasol mushrooms” grown using this method are, so far as is known, entirely capable of free-living existence without the help of the Attine growers. A paraphyletic grade of Escovopsis is known to infect the the paraphyletic fungal food sources used by the Lower Attine; but, like all Attine agriculturalists, they utilize an antibiotic produced by Actinomycete bacteria to control the parasite.

CORAL FUNGUS AGRICULTURE

The “Pilosum Group” of the Attini tribe began to cultivate coral fungi (Pterulaceae) between 10 and 20 million years ago. Recent research indicates that Coral Fungus Agricultural products are infected by a specialized grade of Escovopsis that is derived from an Escovopsis species that infects Lower Agricultural products. This species subsequently gave rise to a clade that switched hosts and began infecting the Higher Attine food sources (Schultz and Brady 2008).

YEAST AGRICULTURE

Unlike typical Attine Mycelial Gardens, Yeast Gardens consist of small, irregularly shaped nodules of fungus growing in the yeast phase. Yeast Agriculture is confined to the “Rimosus Group” and originated sometime between 5 and 25 million years ago. The yeast grown are capable of a free-living, feral existence; however, they grow in the mycelial phase rather than the yeast phase. Indeed, these fungi are only known to grow in the yeast phase when attended by the Attine growers (or depending on conditions in artificial culture). The parasite Escovopsis is unknown to Yeast Agriculture (Schultz and Brady 2008).

HIGHER AGRICULTURE

The transition to higher agriculture and the subsequent origin of leaf cutting are arguably the two most ecologically significant developments in the history of the Attini tribe. The fungi grown by the Higher Attine suggest a significant degree of “domestication”, or modification for life with the Attine. These fungi do not appear capable of free-living existence separable from their growers. And only the fungi grown by the Higher Attine produce “gongylidia”, nutritious swollen hyphal tips that are harvested by the Higher Attine for food(Schultz and Brady 2008).

LEAF CUTTING AGRICULTURE

The development of Leaf Cutting Agriculture (rather than the debris collecting that is used in all the other systems) coincided with marked ecological transitions in South America (5-15 mya). The coincidence of grassland expansion with the development of Leaf Cutting Agriculture supports the hypothesis that early Leaf Cutters may have been Grass Cutting specialists with specializations in Broadleaf Cutting developing later. The most wide ranging Leaf Cutting Agriculturalists originated and expanded within the last 1 to 2 million years. Such a rapid acceleration in diversification and expansion of the Attini tribe underscores the belief that Leaf Cutting Agriculture represents one of the key innovations in Attine history (Mueller and Rabeling 2008).

Citations:
Mueller, U., & Rabeling, C. (2008). A breakthrough innovation in animal evolution Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105 (14), 5287-5288 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0801464105

Schultz, T., & Brady, S. (2008). Major evolutionary transitions in ant agriculture Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105 (14), 5435-5440 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0711024105
-Bryan Perkins

Next Page »