Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Museum Madness

In September this year, the Canadian Air and space museum came under threat from development. The site is very unique and is a piece of history in itself, as it is comprised of decommissioned air force buildings, which were vital in the war effort. The site is recognized as a Federal Heritage Building since May 14th 1992, and yet this has been ignored by the government, and development plans for the site have been given the go ahead. As of the 20th of September 2011, the museum was served an eviction notice and locked down. The museum provides not only interest to tourists but also a vital educational resource for school children and scholars alike. It is the original factory for the production of the tiger moth aircraft along with many other types of airplane within Canada. The museum houses a variety of exhibits, many of which can not be moved without being cut in to pieces. Not only that, but a vital part of the museum is simply the building it’s located in, and without this much of the atmosphere and history is lost. The local residents of Toronto and the Smithsonian museum have both opposed the eviction, but currently the plans for developing the site in to a new hockey stadium is still going ahead.

In a country as sparsely populated as Canada, why are we destroying the heritage we have, when a new location could have been used? Not only is this an attack on the importance of history, but also on the importance and availability of science to the young and old alike. Everyone needs to make a stand against such action, in order to preserve vital history and resources for the next generation. There is currently an online petition which is submitted to the planning and development department to oppose the development.

E Markham (2011). Museum Madness Blogspot
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Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Horoscope Hogwash

During the recession many people are finding it increasingly difficult to find a good secure job, where it is an employers market and many candidates are interviewed before companies select their ideal employee. But imagine that not only are you being judged on your academic ability, skills, previous employment, references but also your star sign?

In China many companies are now using horoscopes to help choose their ideal candidates1, often leaving many otherwise ideal candidates out of work. This may seem unlikely but it is a growing trend in China, where even university positions are requiring certain star signs which are deemed more desirable. One stated that “Scorpios had strong personalities and were moody, while Virgos were hugely critical and did not stay in one job for long”, but how could one 12th of the population ( or 8.3% ) which all share the same star sign just by chance, be seen as all the same? Obviously, star signs are designed to pick up on general characteristics in everyone, because the people who write them want them to fit as many people as possible. They have to have something that most people within that group can relate to, and that needs to be broad when the group involved is one 12th of the population, including both men and women, all age groups and all levels of society. Everyone is moody from time to time, everyone can be critical. But to say that everyone born between two arbitrary dates are especially moody or critical is just silly and statistically impossible, because there is no correlation between a person’s date of birth and their personality. The reason horoscopes seem to be accurate is because they use a variety of different techniques which are more commonly used in Cold Reading, like Barnum statements 2. These involve the subject making vague statements fit their situation, forgetting anything that was inaccurate and only remembering the accurate statements within the horoscope, this makes the horoscope seem like it is very accurate to your life specifically, even though in reality you could have been given any star signs horoscope for any month of any year, and due to the general and vague nature of the statements it would seem very accurate.

Horoscopes claim to work on the premise that at the moment of birth, the child is influenced by the gravitational pull of the stars in their current position in relation to the earth. Astrologers claim to be able to determine the personality of the child, just using information about its time of birth. This was tested by Shawn Carlson in a blind trial, where 28 astrologers were given information about the births of 100 children and given 100 personality profiles, and were asked to match the birth details with the personality. The studies findings were published in Nature in 1985 3, with the conclusion that the astrologers performed no better than chance, “clearly refuting the astrological hypothesis”.

So why are employers in China seeking to use a method with no scientific basis? Well, the same reason why many employers in the UK and USA previously consulted Graphologists to analyze a candidate’s handwriting, it is simply because deciding on a new employee is a difficult process, and training them is costly and time consuming. Managers have huge pressures on them to find the best person for the job, and by using Graphologists or Astrologers or any other pseudoscientific method, they are deferring the responsibility to someone else, and then if the employee turns out to be unsuitable then they can blame the astrologer, who will just brush it off with a vague statement like ‘mixed messages’ or ‘the stars were not clear’. It is understandable that companies would want to try anything to get great staff, in order to increase profits and productivity, and high levels of applicants’ only increases this selection pressure. It is important that both the public and companies should be made aware of the fact that graphology and other equally silly techniques have no evidence that they work and at best are a waste of time and should not be tolerated as part of a selection process, as candidates should be selected on their merits and abilities, and not on something arbitrary, often completely random and out of their control.


E Markham (2011). Horoscope Hogwash Blogspot
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Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Ridiculous Radiation

A recent article in the Guardian exposes the pseudoscientific claims of Dr Christopher Busby, who has been promoting his ‘anti-radiation tablets’1. These are calcium and magnesium tablets which he has been targeting to the vulnerable and desperate Japanese people, at exorbitant prices in the wake of the recent nuclear disaster. His claims are not only untrue but highly misleading, as well as including unfounded statements that the Japanese government is trying to cover up the disaster and deliberately hurt its people.

Firstly, to make one thing very clear, there is no such thing as an ‘anti-radiation tablet’, or any other kind of medical prevention (except if you wish to wear a lead suit of armor everyday). Nuclear disasters are highly rare occurrences, and so even if medical prevention did exist, it would be a waste of time for the vast majority of individuals. Of the many by-products produced in the fusion from a nuclear disaster, one of which is radioactive iodide, the negative effect of this can by reduced by taking potassium iodide, as this will out compete the radioactive iodide for the natural affinity for the thyroid, where it would become concentrated and lead to thyroid cancer, however this only protects against thyroid cancer specifically, and has no protective effects on all the other types of cancer which are likely to occur depending on the levels and duration of ionizing radiation exposure. The WHO recommends 130mg of potassium iodide (which is 700 times the daily required dose) would be protective against thyroid cancer, small doses can be obtained through iodized salt, however 1kg of salt would be required to get sufficient protective levels, and this would be a lethal quantity of salt. But luckily potassium iodide is widely available in tablet form, even though its protective effects are limited. However, even this is highly unnecessary, but that hasn’t stopped thousands of people ordering these tablets, with production companies being swamped with orders2.

Other treatments for radiation effects include the use of antibiotics, because of the radiations negative effects on the rapidly self replenishing intestine, and so vomiting and nausea are common side effects, which are eased by reducing the levels of bacteria in the gastro-intestinal tract.

However, Dr Busby's tablets only contain calcium and magnesium, which he states provide protection from radiation, but lacks any scienitific studies or research to support these claims. It is hard to imagine why Dr Christopher Busby, a visiting professor at the University of Ulster would be supporting these mineral supplements, but it soon becomes clear when you find out that he actually runs the lab where the tests would be carried out and sells the tablets through the website, and so would stand to gain financially from promoting them. He has a PhD in Chemical Physics, which goes to show that scientists can also be mislead and fooled by flim-flam. However, his anti-nuclear stance and subsequent promotion of pseudoscientific treatments for scared and desperate individuals living in the areas surrounding the disaster, is not only unethical but promotes the belief in miracle cures rather than trust in the local government and healthcare providers to address the risks and provide appropriate treatments.

Japan has fair more stringent regulations than even Europe on the acceptable levels of radiation, not only from direct human exposure, but in food and water as well1, making the need for personal testing of urine or water outside of the evacuation zone not only pointless but a waste of money. It is understandable that when people are scared they act irrationally and don’t always check all the facts when they hear about a new treatment or prevention, but it is the scientific community and the medias responsibility to put the spotlight on these charlatans and expose the fraud and fake claims, in order to promote critical thinking and protect the most vulnerable people within our communities.


E Markham (2011). Ridiculous Radiation Blogspot
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Monday, 21 November 2011

Awful Alternatives

A wonderful article in the Guardian this week is discussing the ethics of alternative medicine1, which at best is seen as a placebo and harmless, however this article explores how these treatments can actually be more harmful than no treatment. This may seem surprising at first, after all, treatments like homeopathy don’t contain a single molecule of the drug, so how could taking this possibly be harmful? However, many alternative medicine practitioners do not give patients all the information, the information is often misleading or wrong, and they also fail to obtain informed consent, which is a basic requirement of ethical medical practice. Another interesting finding is that those receiving a treatment have the belief that it is doing something beneficial, and so are more likely to have increased risky behaviour, because subconsciously they believe that the treatment will be counteracting such actions, for example smokers given a treatment they were told was a detox and would improve their health, and those given this treatment increased the amount they smoked in comparison to the control group2.


E Markham (2011). Awful Alternatives Blogspot
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Thursday, 10 November 2011

Ubertan Unsafe

A nasal spray called Ubertan is a product which has become increasingly popular among people looking to get the perfect tan. It is available at most tanning salons and online, but upon examination of the bottle something seeming missing, the ingredients. When several concerned users contacted the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) a full investigation in to this product was launched 1. It has since been determined that Ubertan is an unlicensed medication, which mean it is both illegal to sell or advertise Ubertan. The products website appears to have been taken down, but upon further investigation it appears to have simply changed its name, from to The websites most recent comments date from the 24th of June, before media coverage of the risks of ubertan products. Since then, no-one has been able to get a statement from the company. Even so, many people are desperate to get hold of this product despite its risks. There is even a Facebook group dedicated to Ubertan, where many women exchange links to websites of where to illegally obtain ubertan products. But is it worth it? One of the biggest risks would be possible allergic reactions or medical complications due to taking the product, and this would be compounded by the fact that the ingredients of the product are unknown, so the doctors would not know an effective treatment.

E Markham (2011). Ubertan unsafe Blogspot
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Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Fairy Fantasy

It has recently been claimed that a live fairy has been captured in Mexico 1, apparently it is now dead and preserved in formaldehyde. The man who caught it, a bricklayer called Jose Maldonado, said it appeared when he was picking guavas and he at first thought it was something shiny before he picked it up and realised it was a fairy. He has recently lost his job, and so he charges people who come to his house to see the fairy and take photos. Over 3,000 visitors have come to see the fairy, and it has sparked off locals making merchandise with images of the fairy or selling refreshments to people waiting to see it, bringing money to the local area.

It is quite obvious that the fairy is a hoax for many reasons:
-why would a bricklayer be picking guavas
-why would he kill the fairy, as it would be worth more alive than dead
-where would someone in the poorest part of Mexico gets formaldehyde from
-why is it identical to a plastic toy fairy sold in Mexico

Mexican Toy                    "Fairy"

All thought misleading gullible people in exchange for money is deeply wrong, it does have one positive impact by bringing tourism and business to one of the poorest parts of Mexico. However, this comes at a price; it does promote the belief in superstitions and mythology, which can have negative repercussions, like people seeking out alternative medicine rather than medicine that are proven safe and effective. 

E Markham (2011). Fairy Fantasy Blogspot
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Thursday, 15 September 2011

Oscillococcinum Oxymoron

It seems to be a growing trend that big companies and corporations threaten legal action against anyone criticizing their product, however now even pseudoscience wants to masquerade as science, by suing bloggers and writers for libel when they discuss how the product doesn’t work or is scientifically incorrect. The most prominent case is this was when Simon Singh was sued by the British Chiropractor Association, but eventually the case was dropped, however this is significant because most people wouldn’t have the financial backing to fight the charges and so would become silences, but fortunately this was not the case.

Another case that has just come to light in the British Medial Journal, is a case involving an international homeopathy produced who is threatening an Italian blogger because he criticized the product 1, Oscillococcinum, because it technically contains no active ingredients, since the preparation of 200C is the equivalent of 1 in 100 then diluted serially 200 times, this is the same as “1ml of the original ingredients diluted in to water the same size as the known universe”, so clearly it cannot be claimed to have any of the original molecular present. But that doesn’t matter, to make matters worse, Oscillococcinum, the original ingredient that they claim to be diluting, doesn’t actually exist! As it was recorded and discovered by only one person, but apparently duck liver contains very high concentrations of this non-existent molecule. Even the principle behind the product does not follow the theory of homeopathy, as it is based on "treating like with like". Since this product is designed to threat the flu, so it must produce similar symptoms to that of the flu. Then is is suggesting that the flu is simply imaginary? Hopefully commonsense and science will prevail.

E Markham (2011). Oscillococcinum Oxymoron Blogspot
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Saturday, 20 August 2011

Ocular Oddity

Recently an English man was diagnosed with superior canal dehiscence syndrome after 6 months of progressive hearing loss, eventually cumulating in hearing his heart beat and hearing his eyes move 1. This is due to internal damage to the ear, which means internal noises can be heard, like the friction of the muscles moving in the eyes. It has an incidence of 1 in 500,000. Luckily, once diagnosed the operation was relatively straight forward.

E Markham (2011). Ocular Oddity Blogspot
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Thursday, 4 August 2011

Train-track Therapy

Another curious ‘Alternative therapy’ that has recently sprung up in Indonesia has been dubbed ‘track therapy’, this might sounds far fetched or something used as a motivation tool or to overcome irrational phobias, it is actually being used by desperate and poor people in Indonesia to treat their chronic illnesses where modern  medicine has failed them. It’s recently popularity stems from a story where a disabled Chinese man goes to a train track to commit suicide, but instead is cured1. While most skeptics would say that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”, this is not always a luxury that people suffering from a chronic disease can always afford.

What is interesting is how the claimed principle behind track therapy is so similar to the electrotherapy popular in Europe in the mid 19th and early 20th century, where an electric current was passed through parts of the body in order to being about a therapeutic effect2. However the main difference here is than the track is not electrified, as the trains obtain electric from overhead power lines and not the track itself. So most people would say “What’s the harm then?” Well, there are many reasons why this practice is dangerous, the most obvious of which is laying across railway tracks that are in constant use, and the frequency of which is often unpredictable. The Indonesian government has erected signs in popular locations stating a prison sentence or large fine for anyone caught on the tracks, in order to try and discourage people from attempting this, but it has so far proved unsuccessful. There is another reason why this practice is dangerous, it is distorting the boundaries between medicine and placebo, as many people have claimed to feel better after laying on the tracks, and while this is beneficial the risk they are putting themselves at is significant. It is likely that more people will be killed using this therapy than will really benefit. Understandably being told by a doctor that there are no effective treatments for your disease, or that you cannot afford them, leads people to trying irrational things in order to seek relief, while many placebos can be effective this should not be one of them. 

E Markham (2011). Train-track Therapy Blogspot
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Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Biocranial Baloney

Recently in the field of chiropractic alternative medicine the ‘Biocranial Technique’ has become rapidly popular. Not satisfied with cracking your bones, this ‘technique’ seeks to realign bones in the skull and top of the spine to increase the efficiency and duration of the ‘correction’. Chiropractor S. Marmorstein describes the technique as "the membrane within the skull excerts and powerful influence over the integrity of the spine. With it, the entire spine and pelvis can be adjusted simply by working on the cranium"1. The exact procedure seems to vary from practitioner to practitioner; such variance would not be tolerated in the medical community. Robert Boyd developed the Biocranial system and claimed that “most injuries occur at birth, and that this can be influenced during pregnancy and from the birth of the mother, and so on”2 and that these ‘injuries’ don’t need to have symptoms to still affect us and our offspring. The idea that pressure on the soft bones of the skull during pregnancy and childbirth can cause or influence disease later in life is quite illogical, because the skull needs to be malleable in order to exit the birth canal, and so we would all be affected by this (which conveniently means this technique is applicable for everyone). It is also not explained how some gentle manipulation of the scalp or rubbing of the spine correct this. Another claim is that rhythms of the craniosacral system can be felt with the fingertips and that this is the flow of cranial fluid 3, the rate and flow of which has been claimed to have an influence or be an indicator of disease.

No properly randomized, blinded, and placebo-controlled trials have been published regarding any Biocranial technique 3. Furthermore, of the small trials that have been carried out to compare practitioners, the practitioners were requested to record the ‘cranial rhythm’ they claimed to feel in their patents, however when compared there was no similarity in their measurements 3. Scientific evidence does not support the theory of misalignment of cranial bones, the medical community believes that the bones of the skull are fused by sutures 4 (fibrous joins), but allowing small expansion due to intracranial pressure, however, this does not suggest that they could become misaligned or that this could be a cause of disease since the movement would be miniscule. This technique has been claimed to treat a range of disorders including: Angina, hypertension, eczema, arthritis, asthma and gastric problems 3. Over all, this technique can be seen as another ineffective and unnecessary addition to the vast numbers of alternative medical procedures available, which seek to separate the patient from their money in exchange for unrealistic pseudoscientific claims.

E Markham (2011). Biocranial Baloney Blogspot
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Thursday, 9 June 2011

Fitflop Fallacy

A new crazy hitting the high streets this summer is the fit-flop 1, which has been promoted with claims such as “helps you lose weight and improve muscle tone”2 simply by walking. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and this product is trying to provide that evidence by extrapolating on the initial findings from a very small study of the shoes (only 20 women).  Fit-flop claims to increase leg and thigh muscle activity by up to 30% 1, 2, however in such a small study it would be impossible to know if such a claim is true. While the position of the strap over the main part of the foot is beneficial over conventional flip-flops it is by no means a method for obtaining toned muscles. The method claimed this was due to the soft area of padding in the mid area of the shoe, which apparently means the foot is more unstable and has to work harder to keep balance. Would this not be the same as buying a pair of shoes that don’t fit properly? Because your legs would have to work harder to keep them on your feet. And if this is the case then why would you pay $50 for a pair of sandals that do not fit? Podiatrist Lorraine Jones says "If someone has excessive motion in the mid-foot that isn't controlled they could suffer tissue damage or heel or calf pain," 2 many other scientists have been critical about this product, sighting the pronation of the foot and the excessive rolling of the foot to be a major source of knee pain and foot pain, due to the lack of support. There is no evidence to suggest they are any better than another pair of footwear.

Not only are they likely to be damaging to your feet, they also have no proof they will help you lose weight, except for maybe giving you the motivation to walk more because you have just spent $50 on a pair of flip-flops. Again, it is the age old saying ‘no pain, no gain’, there is no easy solution and the only really proven way to become more fit is to reduce your calorie intake, eat a healthy balanced diet and exercise regularly.

E Markham (2011). Fitflop Fallacy Blogspot
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Thursday, 2 June 2011

Zombie Zealously

The Center for Disease Control plays a vital role in a variety of programs and efforts; this includes tracking the spread of outbreaks of disease to educating communities about avoiding disease and assisting in the distribution of health supplies and resources. The CDC releases an information guideline for emergency preparedness every year, with guidelines on storing and sterilizing water to preparing a first aid kit. However this year there publication was slightly different, it had a zombie theme 1. This may seem unrealistic, but it is clearly a good way to communicate the desired information to the target audiences, where they would not normally pay much attention to a dry safety outline. The online guide was instantly so popular that it crashed the CDC servers due to the unexpectedly high levels of traffic to the site. It has since been featured on the news, social media and across the internet in general. Overall the guide could be described as incredibly successful, it has connected and informed so many more people than it usually reaches and clearly this represents the changing face of how information is distributed and communicated within this technology and film based generation.

E Markham (2011). Zombie Zealously Blogspot
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Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Cryptic Codes

From the development of language and communication there has been the need to restrict those who receive this information from those you would choose not to share it with. This was the beginnings of encryption, a method of disguising the information, so that only you and the desired recipient knows what it written. Many ingenious methods have been employed, some for the purposes of war and others used to scam or to just confuse.  This week’s New Scientist explores “Unbreakable” 1; a set of articles discussing unbroken codes and ciphers. It is a fascinating look at a variety of codes which have remained unbroken, even in the face of sophisticated analytical software and computer algorithms designed to break the most complex ciphers. One of the most famous code machines, the Enigma machine still has many codes which have remained unbroken, the article discusses how the codes are created and how modern code breakers that are taking on the challenge in the hope of finally decoding them. More disturbing is the still undeciphered message left by a serial killer during the 1960’s who became known as the ‘Zodiac killer’ 2, where even modern attempts to decode the messages have failed.  What is fascinating is that these codes have grabbed the imagination of people through out the generations and the ingenuity of the creators has inspired many more people to follow in their footsteps, both in designing new codes and in developing ways to crack them, this has lead to a competitive one-upmanship, in so doing leading to safer encryption for online communications and maintaining personal privacy.

The book Codes, Ciphers, Secrets and Cryptic Communication 3 is a wonderful read for anyone interested in codes and ciphers. It discusses the history of early attempts at encryption and examines how these have evolved over time and to cope with different challenged from advancing decryption methods. It explored a variety of different unbroken codes and why they have been so successful, as well as why many are likely to simply be fakes because there structure is consistent with that of nonsense. It is a wonderful book, written in a lively style and with plenty of explanations and examples. The reader gains a firm understanding how the different types of encryption work and can have a go at designing their own coded messages.


E Markham (2011). Cryptic Codes Blogspot
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Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Rapture Recalled

Recently yet another ‘End of the World’ prediction has been taking over the media and internet, this time in the form of Harold Camping, an evangelical broadcaster who used a ‘mathematical equation’ to determine the end of the world. Apparently the equation goes a little like this:
“Camping dated the Great Flood to 4990 BC. Taking the prediction in Genesis 7:4 ("Seven days from now I will send rain on the earth") to be a prediction of the end of the world, and combining it with 2 Peter 3:8 ("With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day"), Camping concludes that the end of the world will occur in 2011, 7000 years from 4990 BC. Camping takes the 17th day of the second month mentioned in Genesis 7:11 to be the 21st of May, and hence predicts the rapture to occur on this date.
Another argument that Camping uses in favor of the May 21st date is as follows:
According to Camping, the number five equals "atonement", the number ten equals "completeness", and the number seventeen equals "heaven".
Christ is said to have hung on the cross on April 1, 33 AD. The time between April 1, 33 AD and April 1, 2011 is 1,978 years.
If 1,978 is multiplied by 365.2422 days (the number of days in a solar year, not to be confused with the lunar year), the result is 722,449.
The time between April 1 and May 21 is 51 days.
51 added to 722,449 is 722,500.
(5 × 10 × 17)2 or (atonement × completeness × heaven)2 also equals 722,500.
Thus, Camping concludes that 5 × 10 × 17 is telling us a "story from the time Christ made payment for our sins until we're completely saved."
In Camping's 1992 self-published book 1994? He predicted that the End Times would come in September 1994 (variously reported as September 4 or September 6). When the Rapture failed to occur on the appointed day, Camping said he had made a MATHEMATICAL ERROR.” 1.

What is surprising is that so many people believe Camper, and are willing to over look that fact that he already made predictions in the past which did not come to pass, so why should he be right now? Apparently 41% of American’s believe that rapture will occur before 2050 2. I find this hard to believe because only 76% of the population identifies themselves as Christian 3, and of those it would be fair to assume that most are quite rational and don’t hold extreme beliefs. Also, who is to say that the numbers he has chosen are the correct numbers? Clearly they are quite arbitrary and so anyone could look at the bible and get some numbers that seem to be suggesting something, carry out an equation and come up with a different day of judgment 4. So why is it that recently there has been a plethora of apocalypse predictions? Everything from the Mayan calendar to solar flares changing the magnetic poles of the earth, but in fact this is nothing new. During all of human history there have always been predictions of death and destruction 5, and sometimes these predictions coincided with natural disasters and achieved credibility. Unfortunately, predictions like this are not harmless, they often have unseen consequences, like many people euthanizing their pets before the event or committing suicide because it did not occur 6.  But surely in the 21 century, with all the science and technology available to us, we should no longer need these primitive prophecies in order to explain the world around us. Would it not be better to see the world as it truly is rather than hide behind some illogical explanation?

E Markham (2011). Rapture Recalled Blogspot
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Monday, 23 May 2011

Misleading Magnetism

Recently a 6 year old boy called Ivan Stojiljkovic from Koprivnica, Croatia is being hailed as “Magnet Boy”, because apparently metal objects can stick to him. This story has been picked up by a variety of news providers including CBS 1 Reuters 2 and The Daily Mail 3. The same images and information are used by almost every version of this story, and it did initially look impressive. 
However, the claims made are illogical at best. Firstly, many of the objects he is seen being magnetized to are non magnetic. Secondly, apparently he can only magnetize objects if they are in direct contact with his skin, but that doesn’t make sense, because magnets are able to be attracted to metal even if there is thin cloth or paper in the way (and one would assume that this ‘magnetism’ was already traveling through his skin, so it shouldn’t make any difference if he wore a shirt). Thirdly, when looking up this story on the JREF website 4, it outlines how this effect has been repeated by many people due to the natural oils in the skin building up and becoming sticky if a person sweats and goes without washing for a while. The ‘magnetism’ effect can be cured by the application of talcum powder to the skin.
E Markham (2011). Misleading magnetism Blogspot
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Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Climate Criticism

Global warming is a complex issue, because there is no one single cause to blame. Many different events combine to influence the global temperature and so early attempts to explain the causes and what we should do to combat it have often been over simplistic. However, recent articles like “NASA gets caught faking climate change data again”1 are not helpful. They simply make out that the government is trying to deceive everyone and hide mistakes. Predicting future climate change and modeling it is a very complex job and unfortunately it is not always accurate, that is why it is a prediction not fact. Scientists at NASA use advanced algorithms in order to model climate changes based on past climate data. However, many other factors need to be taken in to account; solar activity, release of other green house causing gases and ozone damaging substances (venting refrigerants, aerosol use), levels of smog and volcanic eruptions. With so many variables, many of which are just unpredictable or erratic, how can it be constructive to criticize attempts at such difficult predictions with comments like “The climate change hoaxers use computer models to predict that sea levels would rise… But Mother Nature was never good at computer science”. Of course there will always be people who are skeptical about climate change, and a minority of people promoting conspiracy theories about it, but their uninformed opinions should not be given a voice in the media where is can masquerade as fact. There are regulating bodies and peer review systems in place to check the validity of scientific claims, if someone feels strongly that a mistake in the data has been made then they could contact the journal and original author in order for the relevant changes to be made and published, not write alarmist attacking articles in order for their voice to be heard. One thing is clear, action needs to be taken.
E Markham (2011). Climate Criticism Blogspot
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Monday, 16 May 2011

Symbolic Stupidity

Everyone feels an importance to have their voice heard, but increasingly the way this is achieved is through opinion polls and online petitions rather than actual actions. These online petitions do make it easy for many people to feel that their opinion will make a difference, however if anything, they make opinion less significant. There are so many websites that will take your information, but what will they do with it? How will they achieve there goal? Obviously putting pressure on governments who are creating and changing laws, which will directly affect many people’s lives is important, but what difference will sending the government an email, which will be filtered and have an automated reply achieve? If someone really cared that much and really wanted to have their opinion heard why not protest or go out and physically do something?

Recently social websites and personal emails have become inundated with requests to sign petitions to stop the proposed anti-gay changes that are occurring in Uganda. Dozens of websites have taken this cause on and are giving it their support, many offer you a letter outline which you then sign and send to the government officials.1, 2. But thinking logically, why would the government respond to this? Especially an African government in which the email address is likely to simply be set-up to receive this kind of petition, and is not actually causing any inconvenience or even be received by the staff within the government itself. People should not ignore this violation in human rights because your email won’t make a difference, however contacting the United Nations or Amnesty International, which are both large organizations which have the power to make governments take action or impose trade sanctions etc is likely to be far more effective. Is it simply because online petitions are easy and fast, giving you an instant feel good factor, rather than something that involves a lot more time and effort in order to achieve actual change. Other problems with online petitions is there is no guarantee that it will get to the correct person, and then this needs to be someone who can actual make the change demanded for. In the Ugandan situation, it is unlikely there will be anyone within the government or top political party that the petition will actual be sent to or have any effect on at all, an email is simply a message that can be deleted with a click, it is not inconvenient to the life of the person reading it or the government as a whole, and is highly unlikely to change their current opinion. Just because lots of people are angry about the same thing does not mean that complex problems will be solved just because they all send one email.

Furthermore, online petitions can easily be forged and so are essentially useless. It is fine if the signee just wants to vent frustration, but expecting actual social change to come about just because they added their name to an online list is unrealistic. This is a form of Slacktivism -which is the feel good result from supporting an issue without actually having to physically do anything.3 This not only includes online petitions but joining Facebook groups and the wearing of awareness ribbons and bracelets. The rationalists Penn and Teller have a show called Bullsh*t, which addresses the futility of the pink ribbon campaign in the episode entitled Breast Hysteria, they discuss the way companies actually use breast cancer to sell things and to target buyers, the money raised is often used to underwrite the costs of events or just raise awareness, and is not used in a coordinated way in order to actually focus money towards one goal, like research, which will in the long run be the only way to really improve the treatment and detection of cancer. Why then does it have so much support and publicity? Because people can use the fact they wear a pink ribbon or have joined a Facebook group as a way to show the people around them that they care about a certain cause.

Of course the wearing of symbols can be motivated by a variety of factors including social and political reasons, for example the presidential candidates are expected to wear patriotic pins, and this is being used as a symbol, which in no way reflects or is proportional to how patriotic that person actually feels. The same can be seen in the seasonal wearing of poppies in the United Kingdom and Canada during the run up to Remembrance day (Nov 11), which is seen as a patriotic act, a recognition of the lives given during the war and the money raised is supports the troops and their families, but why should people be made to feel guilty if they do not wear a poppy even though they may feel very strongly towards the cause? Why should we want to publicly show we support a cause? Could it be because we want to be congratulated on it and to show we are a moral person, and so gain social standing and acquire friends and relationships with people who also care about the same things. So the motivation for wearing a symbol or being seen to support a cause is very different from actually helping the cause itself. Of course every action a person takes in life has a motivation; otherwise no one would do it, because in some way that action needs to be beneficial to that person, true altruism does not exist. Maybe this can explain why online petitions are so prevalent, it is because we want to be seen to be supporting moral causes and supporting social change, when in fact we really don’t want to invest very much effort in to bringing about the desired changes.
E Markham (2011). Symbolic Stupidity Blogspot
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Saturday, 30 April 2011

Splenda Scandal

Recently more and more articles have been making their way around the internet regarding Splenda, making a variety of claims. One of the most shocking articles was from the website, which at first glance appears as a news website. The article “Killing household ants with Splenda” 1 at first seems like an interesting housewife’s tip for getting rid of ant problems; however it is in fact an ill researched and poorly argued attack on a synthetic sweetener company. The author is Jasmine Jafferali, writing for the Chicago Family Health section of the Examiner, so it would be fair to assume she would be a medical doctor in order to be giving health advice, unfortunately this is not the case. Apparently her background is fitness means she is qualified to give advice on health issues. The article itself made 7 statements about Splenda, which it claims are researched facts, but is in reality alarmist comments in order to get an emotional response from the reader. It included statements such as Splenda was originally developed as an insecticide, it’s not ‘real food’, it contains toxic chlorine, and making a link between chlorine and cancer. The final statements were most shocking by saying that chlorine during pregnancy will affect the child’s anatomy and then made the comment “people that consumed diet drinks were 41% more likely to be overweight than those who did not”. However surely the logical reason why people who drink diet drinks tend to be more obese then people who do not, is probably due to the fact that obese people that are looking to loose weigh will want to drink diet products, where as people who have a normal weight are less likely to drink diet drinks, because they are not seeking to loose weight. The diet drinks containing Splenda or similar artificial sweeteners cannot be blamed for causing obesity just because there is a correlation, this does not prove causality. The comments in this article are designed to scare people, as most of the general public are likely to have heard of Chlorine before, and know that its used to sterilise swimming pools etc. and so would be worried at the thought of their sweetener containing chlorine, without considering that household table salt is Sodium Chloride (NaCl) and is perfectly harmless.

Sucralose is an artificially produced chlorinated Sucrose molecule, which is more stable, has no calorie content and is 600 times sweeter than sugar. Sucralose has undergone intensive testing for extended periods of time in a variety of laboratory animals before being approved by the FDA for human consumption. The molecule itself is broken in two when ingested, and then is excreted in an unaltered form. 92.8% of the sucralose is eliminated from the body via the faeces and urine when 1mg/kg body weight per day is ingested, and safe acceptable daily ingestion of Sucralose is determined to be 15mg/kg of body weight based on extensive testing 2. A research publication evaluating the toxicity of Sucralose concluded with the statement “The global population is presenting rises in overweight, obesity, diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular diseases, hyperlipidemia and hypercholesterolemia ….. As a result, there is acceleration in the use of light or diet products, and in the consequent consumption of sweeteners” This highlights how vital new research and scientific discoveries are in the field of healthcare, however this poses new challenges to educate the public and reducing the fear and uncertainty, which inevitably become alarmist, ill researched comments and articles online and in the media.

Surprisingly, simply typing ‘Splenda chlorine’ in to Google in order to research Splenda, returns a whole variety of websites outlining the ‘evils’ of Splenda. One of the top results was for the website selling an entire book about Splenda entitled “Splenda: is it safe or not?” More shockingly however was the website which is an open attack against Splenda, which is in fact provided by The Sugar Association, which represents sugar beet and sugar cane farmers across America. This seems like a clever method of attacking the competition and damaging the reputation of a leading company who was gaining an increasing market share at the expense of the sugar farmers. This is hardly an unbiased source and the information available to the public regarding Splenda is confusing and conflicting at best. It is understandable that people can feel wary of new discoveries, but synthetic sweeteners have undergone rigorous testing before being approved as safe for the public, and since it is being used in so many products and in so many countries around the world it should be intuitive that it must be safe otherwise it would have been detected before now and taken off of the market. It has been studied intensively in laboratories and health clinics, and no significant associations have been found. Obviously there are going to be some people who take these products and then have ill health effects, but that does not mean causality and are more likely to simply be coincidence.

E Markham (2011). Splenda Scandal Blogspot
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Monday, 28 March 2011

Adverse Acupuncture

Today graduate student are leading the forefront of knowledge and scientific discovery. Graduate newspapers tend to explore there ability to form clear arguments and develop ideas. All though the content of such publications tends to be about student life, mostly consisting of articles about drinking, relationships and careers, sometimes they also explore issues like health. Today’s issue of New University, a student publication from the University of California, contained an article discussing Acupuncture 1. This looked to be an interesting article because it initially seemed to be a unbias analysis, however it then quickly degraded into a bias personal account of one person, that almost bordered on advertising or endorsing this practice. It stated “What if I told you that I found a doctor who simply sticks a few needles into you and all your pains and aches disappear in a matter of a few days…. Say goodbye to expensive doctor bills” within the second paragraph, it then went on to discuss the authors experience, the medical doctor had told her she had torn some ligaments in her ankle and needed to rest it.

Essentially, she didn’t listen to the doctor and instead went to see an acupuncture therapist which her relative had recommended, because apparently her ‘horribly allergies symptoms had miraculously disappeared after one needle treatment’. She claimed she was skeptical at first but then went, had two needles put into her arm and was told to start running, she said her ankle didn’t hurt anymore but that her arm started hurting. She was told that “Because the pain balled up in my left ankle was being released into my right arm, the needle pinpointed pressure pain points, which diagonally connected my left ankle to my right arm.” Now, I’m fairly certain that it does not take a scientist to know that this doesn’t make any sense. Why would separate body parts be joined diagonally? Why would putting ‘pressure’ on a point relieve pain elsewhere? Would it not be sensible to conclude that the pain relief could be due to different reasons? For example, the placebo effect is very strong and influential, and could well be responsible. Another explanation could be that the shock and fear of being pricked with needles has caused an adrenalin response, and so act as a pain killer, allowing her to run.

What is frustrating is that this article is written aimed at other college students, who are traditionally less economically stable and tend not to be able to afford medical treatment within the United States, where there in no national health service, and so if you are unable to afford private health insurance then you are left with very few options. This article is likely to have a negative impact on their lives, because they are likely to believe that since she is also a student then she will be educated enough to trust, and since it worked on allergies and injuries, then it could help them. This will simple make students consult alternative practitioners rather than medical professionals, and so not get the medication and treatment that would actually be beneficial, delaying treatment and putting students at risk. All “Thanks to Acupuncture”. 


E Markham (2011). Adverse Acupuncture Blogspot
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