Could Homeopathy Hurt Haiti?

January 20th, 2010

Let’s get down to it. Haiti is the big story of the week, and I have a bit of a rant.

We could discuss the science of earthquakes, but we won’t. There is nothing we can do to stop earthquakes from ocurring. We could discuss the political issues at play. For instance, Pop. Mechanics reports that geologists warned the Haitian government that they were at extreme risk, and should take measures to reinforce response critical buildings like hospitals. Measures did not take place, and we see the aftermath. What I want to talk about is an interesting battle taking place on the field of disaster-response medicine that is based in science.

Doctors without Borders and the Red Cross are sending people by the hundreds to Haiti to respond to medical needs. They will be bringing with them scientifically proven treatments and supplies. And, they will need lots of supplies to treat all the wounded and sick. Interestingly, voices from the homeopathy camp are suggesting that Emergency Homeopathy kits and homeopaths should be sent to the frontlines to help. This is a very dangerous suggestion.

The successes that homeopathy boast seem to be based on the placebo effect – the fact that people think something is going to work seems to have a positive result – but, in all systematic reviews of the literature so far, it seems that which literature is included and why plays a major role in the study conclusions. Whether homeopathic treatments or placebos can be considered true protection or treatment is widely debated.

Simon Singh writes:

When critics point out to politicians or regulators that homeopathy is not backed by any good evidence and is just a placebo, one response is “What’s the harm?”. In other words, if the placebo effect is positive and the side effects are zero, then what’s wrong if people want to waste a bit of money on sugar pills? But is homeopathy really safe?

Unfortunately, homeopathy can have surprising and dangerous side-effects. These have nothing to do directly with any particular homeopathic remedy, but rather they are an indirect result of what happens when homeopaths replace doctors as sources of medical advice… For example, many homeopaths have a negative attitude towards immunization, so parents who are in regular contact with a homeopath may be less likely to immunize their child… Perhaps the greatest danger occurs when homeopathy replaces a conventional treatment…

… homeopaths failed to ask about the patient’s medical background and also failed to offer any general advice about bite prevention… homeopaths were willing to advise homeopathic protection against malaria instead of conventional treatment… [A] homeopath tried to explain the mechanism behind the remedies: ‘The remedies should lower your susceptibility; because what they do is they make it so your energy – your living energy – doesn’t have a kind of malaria-shaped hole in it. The malarial mosquitoes won’t come along and fill that in. The remedies sort it out.’

Science-based medicine brings up the concern that attitudes about vaccines could prove to be very detrimental to disaster scenarios.

One of the coming tragedies in Haiti will be widespread illness and death from vaccine-preventable diseases. A terrifying example is tetanus. Tetanus is a disease caused by the bacterium Clostridium tetani. These bacteria live in most soils, especially rich soils, and can easily infect small wounds. Once the infection takes hold, the bacteria produce a potent toxin responsible for most of the symptoms of the disease.  These symptoms include horrifying muscle spasms, including jaw spasms which give the disease its other name, “lock-jaw”. And it is a horrifying disease, affecting adults with even minor wounds, and babies, who can become infected at the site of their umbilical cord. The disease is frightening, causing uncontrollable muscle spasms resulting in death in nearly 100% of untreated cases. Even when treated, tetanus has a very high mortality rate, and given that tetanus tends to be more common in areas with less access to treatment, the impact is doubly felt. Neonatal tetanus is a dreadful disease, doubly so because it is so easily prevented. When mothers are vaccinated neonates are protected by passage of antibodies to the fetus in utero. Due mainly to political and economic conditions, tetanus vaccination rates in Haiti are low (about 50% in children). Previous similar disasters, such as the Kashmir earthquake and the Indian Ocean tsunami have showed us that tetanus is a special problem after natural disasters.

If anti-vaccination activists succeed in influencing the policies of the U.S. and other governments—as other fringe health activists have done—they may become morally complicit in the deaths of thousands of Haitians.

The bottom line here is: are we going to accept homeopathic and other unproven / unscientific remedies as part of medical disaster-response regimes when the lives of thousands are on the line?

If not there, then why accept them at all?

Think about it.

And, in the meantime, consider donating to the relief response in some way. Doctors without borders is one organization that can use some assistance. There are many ways to help that don’t directly involve money. It has come to my attention that airmiles can be transerred to other people, so if you have spare airmiles, they might help someone get to Haiti who can be of some help.

Debating Climate Change

December 15th, 2009

Recently, what with Copen-Hopen-hagen and Climategate, there has been a renewed interest in the debate surrounding the environmental phenomenon currently called climate change.

I’d like to weigh in with a few points, as they were made on This Week in Science:

•    the greenhouse effect is a natural phenomenon that warms the planet.
•    CO2 is small percentage of atmospheric gases, but has large impact due to longevity… on the order of century rather than hours or days like other gases.
•    all data shows CO2 increasing in the atmosphere
•    current increase strongly correlates to increases in fossil fuel use / emissions / deforestation
•    carbon isotope data links CO2 over the past 150 years to human fossil fuel use.
•    CO2 is currently higher than at any point in at least the past 500,000 – 650,000 years.
•    past CO2 increases were not due to human activity, but occurred at slower rate and didn’t reach current levels. present rate is concerning.
•    Several years within the past decade are among the top 10 warmest on record.
•    Recent warming is not linked to sunspot / solar activity as that has been low while temperatures and CO2 have risen.
•    Sea level rise has increased from 1.5 to over 3mm / year over the last 100 years.
•    There has been a global temperature increase of around 1 deg. F over the past 100 years.
•    the majority of temperature and CO2 data is available to the public. some datasets are not made available immediately due to contractual obligations, but the majority are public domain.

To summarize, there is no scientific debate that CO2 is currently involved in the warming process underway, and that human activities play a significant role in global CO2 levels. There is lots of scientific debate on all sorts of details, but not these main points. The point is that science is based on evidence, and the majority of evidence is pointing to us and CO2. Let’s move on to solutions.

I found a website (there are so many, it wasn’t really difficult) that argues several climate change points in an attempt to sow misunderstanding and mistrust. I’ve taken the time to respond to the so-called “facts” the website presents. My responses are in bold, whereas the “myths” and “facts” presented are from the website, and represent common arguements against climate change science.

From – Ten “Facts” About Climate Change
1.     Climate has always changed, and it always will. The assumption that prior to the industrial revolution the Earth had a “stable” climate is simply wrong. The only sensible thing to do about climate change is to prepare for it.
True, climate has always varied, but of current concern is the rate at which climate is changing. The increase in temperature over the past 100 years outpaces any period for at least the past 500,000. Yes, it is sensible to prepare for climate change, which is why governments and industry leaders are looking to move away from fossil fuels, and to improve water and energy technologies.

2.    Accurate temperature measurements made from weather balloons and satellites since the late 1950s show no atmospheric warming since 1958.  In contrast, averaged ground-based thermometers record a warming of about 0.40 C over the same time period. Many scientists believe that the thermometer record is biased by the Urban Heat Island effect and other artefacts.
False, the lower atmosphere (the troposphere) has warmed in line with the planet surface over the past 50 years. ( Also, the urban heat island effect has been shown to be largely an urban myth, and not a significant player in global temperatures.

3.    Despite the expenditure of more than US$50 billion dollars looking for it since 1990, no unambiguous anthropogenic (human) signal has been identified in the global temperature pattern.
True, the global temperature pattern has complex influences ranging from human emissions to solar activity to volcanism. However, the recent rapid overall increase in temperature can’t be tied to anything more convincingly than human activities.

4.    Without the greenhouse effect, the average surface temperature on Earth would be -180 C rather than the equable +150 C that has nurtured the development of life.
True, the greenhouse effect is responsible for the stability of temperature on our planet.

Carbon dioxide is a minor greenhouse gas, responsible for ~26% (80 C) of the total greenhouse effect (330C), of which in turn at most 25% (~20C) can be attributed to carbon dioxide contributed by human activity. Water vapour, contributing at least 70% of the effect, is by far the most important atmospheric greenhouse gas.
False, in that water vapor might make up the bulk of the greenhouse gases, but it is far less long-lived than CO2, which can persist for a century or more. Also, water vapor varies as a function of temperature. So, CO2 acts as a forcing agent, increasing temperature, which in turn increases H2O vapor, which can then amplify the CO2 initiated temperature increases even more.

5.    On both annual (1 year) and geological (up to 100,000 year) time scales, changes in atmospheric temperature PRECEDE changes in CO2. Carbon dioxide therefore cannot be the primary forcing agent for temperature increase (though increasing CO2 does cause a diminishingly mild positive temperature feedback).
True, temperature changes do often precede CO2, but not significantly. It’s thought that solar and orbital effects can kickstart climate change processes like increases in temperature, but once temperature starts increasing the oceans and other CO2 sinks begin to release CO2 and H2O into the atmosphere, leading to a feedback cycle that continues to increase temperature. What might start out temperature driven doesn’t necessarily end that way. Also, there are historical examples of greenhouse gas driven temperature increases, which resulted in mass extinctions and took over 100,000 years to return to the original state.

6.    The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has acted as the main scaremonger for the global warming lobby that led to the Kyoto Protocol. Fatally, the IPCC is a political, not scientific, body.
True. This is a benefit and a fault. It is a political body informed by science and scientists.

Hendrik Tennekes, a retired Director of Research at the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute, says that “the IPCC review process is fatally flawed” and that “the IPCC wilfully ignores the paradigm shift created by the foremost meteorologist of the twentieth century, Edward Lorenz”.
This comment is a red herring. The IPCC multi-model ensemble approach is ultimately based on Lorenz’ idea of the Butterfly effect. Using multiple models strengthens the overall predictive power of the models by minimizing uncertainties that are inherent in them.

7.    The Kyoto Protocol will cost many trillions of dollars and exercises a significant impost those countries that signed it, but will deliver no significant cooling (less than .020 C by 2050, assuming that all commitments are met).
The Russian Academy of Sciences says that Kyoto has no scientific basis; Andre Illarianov, senior advisor to Russian president Putin, calls Kyoto-ism “one of the most agressive, intrusive, destructive ideologies since the collapse of communism and fascism”. If Kyoto was a “first step” then it was in the same wrong direction as the later “Bali roadmap”.
The Kyoto protocol is a political agreement, not scientific. However, it and other international agreements are a beginning to changing our emission habits.

8.    Climate change is a non-linear (chaotic) process, some parts of which are only dimly or not at all understood. No deterministic computer model will ever be able to make an accurate prediction of climate 100 years into the future.
Climate models are constantly being improved, and with each bit of information we get, we are closer to more accurate predictive models. Current models may not be 100% accurate, but they do give a good idea of what kind of future global climate we are looking at for various scenarios.

9.    Not surprisingly, therefore, experts in computer modelling agree also that no current (or likely near-future) climate model is able to make accurate predictions of regional climate change.
regional climate change is a different beast altogether as local factors play into what is occurring on a global scale. We can gain a general idea of what might happen based on global climate changes, but the model is not going to be 100% accurate on a regional scale.

10.   The biggest untruth about human global warming is the assertion that nearly all scientists agree that it is occurring, and at a dangerous rate.
The reality is that almost every aspect of climate science is the subject of vigorous debate. Further, thousands of qualified scientists worldwide have signed declarations which (i) query the evidence for hypothetical human-caused warming and (ii) support a rational scientific (not emotional) approach to its study within the context of known natural climate change.
What scientists say or don’t say is not the issue. The scientific literature contains a preponderance of evidence suggesting that climate change is occurring, and that human activities are responsible for the extent of the change we are currently seeing. The minutiae of the mechanisms and processes are what are currently being debated within the scientific community, not the overall trends.

Myth 1     Average global temperature (AGT) has increased over the last few years.
Fact 1       Within error bounds, AGT has not increased since 1995 and has declined since 2002, despite an increase in atmospheric CO2 of 8% since 1995.
This is false, 10 of the warmest years on record have occurred over the past 15 years. 2005 was the warmest year on record.

Myth 2     During the late 20th Century, AGT increased at a dangerously fast rate and reached an unprecedented magnitude.
Facts 2      The late 20th Century AGT rise was at a rate of 1-20 C/century, which lies well within natural rates of climate change for the last 10,000 yr. AGT has been several degrees warmer than today many times in the recent geological past.
Red herring… what is meant by recent geological past? It has been warmer than current temperatures many times in the Earth’s history, but not within the last 500,000 years.

Myth 3     AGT was relatively unchanging in pre-industrial times, has sky-rocketed since 1900, and will increase by several degrees more over the next 100 years (the Mann, Bradley & Hughes “hockey stick” curve and its computer extrapolation).
Facts 3      The Mann et al. curve has been exposed as a statistical contrivance. There is no convincing evidence that past climate was unchanging, nor that 20th century changes in AGT were unusual, nor that dangerous human warming is underway.
The hockey stick has been held up as the foundation for all of climate science by the skeptics, but in reality there are many other studies using many different data sources that support the same conclusion as the hockey stick… the past 100 years have seen a rapid temperature increase that is expected to continue.

Myth 4     Computer models predict that AGT will increase by up to 60 C over the next 100 years.
Facts 4      Deterministic computer models do. Other equally valid (empirical) computer models predict cooling.
The majority of models looking at surface temperatures predict warming. there may be regional cooling, however.

Myth 5     Warming of more than 20 C will have catastrophic effects on ecosystems and mankind alike.
Facts 5      A 20 C change would be well within previous natural bounds. Ecosystems have been adapting to such changes since time immemorial. The result is the process that we call evolution. Mankind can and does adapt to all climate extremes.
True, adaptation will allow some organisms to survive, but based on the current rate of change, if temperatures increase too rapidly, many organisms will not be able to adapt, and we will likely see mass extinctions as temperatures increase and local climates change.

Myth 6     Further human addition of CO2 to the atmosphere will cause dangerous warming, and is generally harmful.
Facts 6      No human-caused warming can yet be detected that is distinct from natural system variation and noise. Any additional human-caused warming which occurs will probably amount to less than 10 C. Atmospheric CO2 is a beneficial fertilizer for plants, including especially cereal crops, and also aids efficient evapo-transpiration.
Human emissions will likely add to the predicted temperature increases. We are responsible for the current CO2 increases and to the linked climate changes. the plants will be able to deal to a certain degree, but that argument is another red herring as the atmosphere will likely contain too much CO2 for the different sinks to ameliorate the temperature increases in a reasonable amount of time.

Myth 7     Changes in solar activity cannot explain recent changes in AGT.
Facts 7      The sun’s output varies in several ways on many time scales (including the 11-, 22 and 80-year solar cycles), with concomitant effects on Earth’s climate. While changes in visible radiation are small, changes in particle flux and magnetic field are known to exercise a strong climatic effect. More than 50% of the 0.80 C rise in AGT observed during the 20th century can be attributed to solar change.
Solar flux in the first half of the 20th century is likely responsible for much of the observed temperature increases during that period, but more recently CO2 and temperature have been increasing while solar activity has waned.

Myth 8     Unprecedented melting of ice is taking place in both the north and south polar regions.
Facts 8      Both the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are growing in thickness and cooling at their summit. Sea ice around Antarctica attained a record area in 2007. Temperatures in the Arctic region are just now achieving the levels of natural warmth experienced during the early 1940s, and the region was warmer still (sea-ice free) during earlier times.
Antarctic ice is thinning and resulting in calving of large areas of ice off of the continent. Arctic ice continues to decrease as temperatures rise. Greenland’s glaciers are melting.

Myth 9     Human-caused global warming is causing dangerous global sea-level (SL) rise.
Facts 9      SL change differs from time to time and place to place; between 1955 and 1996, for example, SL at Tuvalu fell by 105 mm (2.5 mm/yr). Global average SL is a statistical measure of no value for environmental planning purposes. A global average SL rise of 1-2 mm/yr occurred naturally over the last 150 years, and shows no sign of human-influenced increase.
There is always going to be some amount of local variability. However, measurements show a yearly rise on the order of 3 mm currently, and increase over the earlier measurements of 1.5mm / year.

Myth 10   The late 20th Century increase in AGT caused an increase in the number of severe storms (cyclones), or in storm intensity.
Facts 10    Meteorological experts are agreed that no increase in storms has occurred beyond that associated with natural variation of the climate system.
there has been a slight increase in storm severity in some regions. this area of data collections still needs more investigation as it is hard to separate weather effects from climatological effects over the short-term. what scientists are interested in are long-term trends

I will say it again. Let’s move on from repeating these “debates” to solutions.

Want to Buy A Banned T-Shirt? Update

September 2nd, 2009

No word from Mr. Pollitt (yet), but I just sent another email offering to buy all the t-shirts from him.

Want to Buy A Banned T-Shirt?

August 31st, 2009

After reading this article about the Sedalia County (thank you Brandon for the correction!) school district’s treatment of the Smith-Cotton High School Marching Band’s new t-shirt, of course I tweeted the article. One comment came back from Tim Beauchamp (@tbeauchamp for those interested) wondering if there was a way to get one of the tees for himself.

This got me thinking… the Sedalia district’s Assistant Superintendent, Brad Pollitt, said himself that the district would have to cover the cost of the revoked shirts (some $700). So, why not try to get the school district to put the shirts up for sale as a fundraiser for the band and school district?

Here’s a letter that I wrote to Mr. Pollitt along those lines:

Dear Mr. Pollitt,

I’m writing you after reading a recent news article about the trouble that you and the Smith-Cotton High School marching band had with the “Brass Evolutions 2009” t-shirt design.

You are quoted as saying that the district will have to absorb the cost of the troublesome tees. I know several people who would be interested in purchasing the t-shirts. Perhaps there is an opportunity for the district to make the cost of the shirts back by selling them to individuals who are not upset by the creative design, and in fact who would wear the shirts proudly.

I am sorry to hear that the design was so distasteful to so many, and that you felt it necessary to respond by revoking the shirts at a cost to the district. Our nation’s schools never have it financially easy, especially so in this time of economic recession. This could be an economic win if approached in the spirit of fundraising.

All the best,

Kirsten H. Sanford, Ph.D

I think this could be an interesting way to approach the problem. Rather than bash anyone, or call anyone names, let’s try to publicize the evolution banning event by purchasing the t-shirts. It might actually help the school out, which is something very needed these days. We’ll see if and how Mr. Pollitt responds.

If you are interested in writing a similar letter to see if we can get these shirts back into the population, you can find the contact information of the Sedalia School District administrators here, and this is Mr. Brad Pollitt’s work email.

If you do write, please, keep in mind that this is a teachable moment, and civility and compassion will do more good than temper and bile.

Michael Chorost on Science at CWA 2009

June 10th, 2009

Dr. Kiki interviews Michael Chorost, author of “Rebuilt: How Becoming Part Computer Made Me More Human”, about communicating science at the Conference on World Affairs in 2009.

Michio Kaku on Why

June 5th, 2009

In this segment, Dr. Kaku discusses with Dr. Kiki why communicating science is so vital to research, and why he spends so much of his time talking to the public.


Distributed by Tubemogul.

Michio Kaku on Politics

June 1st, 2009

Excerpt from Dr. Kiki’s 2008 interview with Dr. Michio Kaku. Here he discusses selling science to politicians.

Michio Kaku on the Big Bang

May 14th, 2009

Dr. Michio Kaku talks about the Big Bang and the Large Hadron Collider… and Elvis.

High School Has An Impact

May 2nd, 2009

According to a study by University of Minnesota researchers, what is taught by high school biology teachers affects the views of their students.

“Co-authors Randy Moore and Sehoya Cotner, professors in the College of Biological Sciences, surveyed 1,000 students taking introductory biology classes at the University of Minnesota to learn how biology majors view evolution compared to non-majors. Results showed that the two groups’ views were similar and revealed that high school biology teachers influence whether majors and non-majors college students accept evolution or question it based on creationism.”

According to the article one-fourth of high school biology teachers believe that creationism can be scientifically validated. I haven’t found access to the original article to validate the reference. But, such a statement is concerning when considered alongside this new paper.

Michio Kaku on God

April 30th, 2009

Dr. Michio Kaku dishes on spirituality, Einstein, and God in this latest installment of our interview. Distributed by Tubemogul.