Did you know you can buy many college textbooks through Amazon? Flowers? Chocolates? Power tools?
I know I appreciate a good table saw.
If you buy your Amazon purchases via the link, JREF gets a commission, and it doesn’t cost you anything extra.
To participate, go to the James Randi Educational Foundation home page and look for the JREF Amazon link, on the lower left hand side of the page. It will bring you up into the selection of skeptically-themed books; however it you do not wish to purchase any book listed here, click on the “powered by Amazon” icon in the upper left corner. Although it won’t show a JREF link or any mention of James Randi, anything you put into your cart at this point will earn the JREF a commission, with very few exceptions.
Privacy: Amazon does not report any identifiable information in its earnings reports to the JREF, so your purchases are private.
As you probably know, you can buy nearly ANYTHING on Amazon, and frequently they have the best price, even when you include the shipping costs. When you do your holiday shopping, consider Amazon and help out the JREF.
If you enter the Amazon site via the link on randi.org, nearly anything you order results in a small commission to the JREF. This means big ticket items, like cameras and TVs, and small ticket items like a pair of socks! You don’t have to buy anything specifically listed in the JREF Amazon Library to earn comissions. Personally, I’ve ordered electronics, most of my son’s college textbooks, kitchen appliances, and a Kindle, as well as way too many books. The commission also applies to items that are shipped from third-party companies that sell from within Amazon. There are exceptions, but they are rare.
When you go to the James Randi Educational Foundation website, you will see an advertising banner above the latest SWIFT blog post. These rotate through several different subjects, so it you don’t see «JREF Amazon Library», refresh your page until it appears. You can browse through the books, DVDS, and other items listed there, or you can proceed to Amazon to search and select for what you are buying, and log into your own account. It’s that easy.
As far as privacy concerns: The JREF receives a general report of items ordered with the estimated revenue, but Amazon does not send any personally identifiable information, only quantities ordered under the JREF icon.
It costs you nothing extra, and really helps out the JREF!
Thank for your support. Your JREF Librarian….
(This article first appeared in slightly different form on the SWIFT blog of the James Randi Education Foundation.)
Opportunities to expose people to critical thinking occur frequently. Last week I received one of those emails we all get on occasion, one that had been forwarded several times, each time with a dozen or so addressees. The oldest email in the chain was dated November 16, but referred to an event that occurred mid September, 2009. I’ve posted it below, with the copy exactly as it appeared:
I hope this makes it to every person in Texas….we need to shut this store down FOR GOOD!!
Today I went to the Harwin Central Mall to pick up some crystals. The very first store that you come to when you walk from the lobby of the building into the shopping area had this sign posted on their door. The shop is run by Muslims. I couldn’t stay in the building, it made me so sick.
Feel free to share this with others.
Imam Ali flew one of the planes into the twin towers. Nice huh?
The first thing I did when receiving this was to Google for a list of the 9-11 hijackers, which I easily found on several sites, including an FBI press release. Of course, Imam Ali was not on the list. Since I’m a bit of a history buff (although by no means an expert), I knew that “Imam Ali (A.S.)” was the assassinated fourth Caliph, and the son-in-law of Mohammed. Disputes regarding the successors to Mohammed and Ali’s murder contributed to the conflicts that led to the split of Islam between the Sunni and Shia sects.
Because the Islamic calendar is lunar, the anniversaries change dates as related to the Western calendar, and this year the anniversary of his murder happened to fall on September 11. This is a holy date to the Shia community, and each year millions gather to mourn and commemorate. This is a religious event, but it is also important historically.
I’m not a fan of any religion. However, I am against discrimination, stereotypes, ignorance of history, and a failure to check out facts. The news story was carried on Houston affiliates, such as the local ABC station, who covered the story : “The sign was posted on a store…What it said caused so much controversy it’s been blogged about on the Internet and store managers have been threatened and harassed.” (Emphasis added). Other news articles, referred to angry Internet bloggers, but also people who expressed apologies for overreacting without knowing the facts.
Those reactions, and the threats received by the store owners, were based on ignorance. Most Westerners have little or no knowledge of world history in anything but general terms, and that tends to be dominated by northern European or western hemisphere political events. History about religions is not typically addressed. Like everyone, I also get many emails forwarded to me that contain warnings, urban legends, and other false information that can usually be quickly verified by checking on online – in fact, Snopes covered this within days. Warning someone about flesh-eating bacteria on banana peels probably doesn’t cause anyone harm, but threats to boycott and false information that leads someone to be threatened or abused, can cause injury.
The store owner, Imran Chunawala, closes his shop every year for this anniversary, and was surprised by the reaction. When informed about the controversy regarding the date, he issued an apology and posted a new sign explaining who Imam Ali was, and the coincidence on it occurring on September 11 this year. (Note: The Christian holiday of Easter is also based in part on a lunar calendar, which is why it falls on a different date each year.)
The brouhaha was based on a misunderstanding, which has been cleared up, at least locally. However, the email came from a friend in another part of the state, two months after the incident. When I received it, I wrote a “reply all” to my friend, explaining the significance of the date, asked her to not forward it again and to send my note back to the person from whom she had received the email. Reactions were mixed. From her, a reply that ‘how could she possibly know about Imam Ali’ and from one other person, a thank you. I wonder how long that email will be passed along without being critically reviewed, researched, or even questioned, and what continued anger it may generate.
Houston Skeptics Society member, Skepchick Blogger, and snappy dresser Sam Ogden recently interviewed Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson in Houston. Dr. Tyson is a well-known scientist, host of PBS’s Nova Science series, director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium, former keynote speaker at the James Randi Educational Foundation’s The Amaz!ng Meeting, and once voted “sexiest astrophysicist” by People, sat down with Sam for a few minutes. Enjoy!
Skepchick blogger and Houston Skeptic Society co-organizer Sam Ogden recently sat down with Dr. Eugenie Scott last month when she was in town to lecture at the Houston Natural Science Museum. Society member Chris of Dropframe Video (firstname.lastname@example.org) did a fantastic job of capturing and editing the interview, which is presented on You-tube. Part one of the series can be found here, from where you can link to the subsequent parts to allow for easier uploading. Enjoy!
Below is an adaptation of a talk I gave as part of a panel at DragonCon, called “How to Combat Woo”. My fellow panelists included Phil Plait, PhD, also known as the Bad Astronomer, D.J. Groethe of the Center of Skeptical Inquiry and host of the podcast “Point of Inquiry”, Jeff Wagg, Communications and Outreach Manager of the James Randi Educational Foundation, and Maria Walters, founder of the Atlanta Skeptic Society and columnist on the Skepchick.org blog.
My son attended the Naval nuclear power school a few years ago, including a crash course in chemistry, physics, electronics, thermodynamics, other subjects needed to operate and maintain a nuclear power plant. The students tend to be top achievers, interested in science and math, and would frequently ask for the theory. They wanted to know WHY not just how. The instructors would answer “this is outside the scope of this course, please just accept this so we can move on.” So my son and his classmates drew large black dots on the backs of their calculators, with Sharpies. When they were told to accept information for the sake of expediency, they’d ‘push’ this button and say “I believe.”
I told you that story so I can tell you this story. All of us have a button labeled “I believe” that we push. The button may be as simple as “I believe that my spouse loves me.” Or “education is a positive thing for society.” But most people of the world have other buttons that they push. I believe in magic, ghosts, witches, homeopathy, aliens, psychics, conspiracy theories, or one of a hundred versions of a god. And that button might as well be drawn in Sharpie, because it doesn’t work anymore, it is ALWAYS pushed.
I’m an engineer by training, and like to draw diagrams and pictures. I can’t think without a pencil or marker in my hand. If you’re like me, you think that if you can just explain something, a scientific topic for example, clearly enough, that your audience will nod their heads and say ‘oh, yes, now I see! You’re right, and I will adjust my thinking.”
The problem with those buttons that are painted on, they have to wear off. We, as skeptics, want to slice right through the armor that believers have plated up around themselves, which have built up by custom, upbringing, anecdotes, personal experiences, fuzzy thinking, and from lack of exposure to the scientific method.
It took me almost three years to get my own mother to check Snopes before she forwarded emails to me. I’m her daughter, you think she would trust me, but I still have to carefully work with her on issues with her health. Just this week, she told me, rather reluctantly, that she had gone to a chiropractor for some lower back pain, because ‘she was desperate”. This, from a woman with chronic kidney disease that reads my blog posts. I had to persuade my aunt to throw away her bowel cleansing kits and pills to ‘improve her liver function” even though she couldn’t tell me what her liver function was supposed to be functioning as. But, now they check Snopes, and were at least embarrassed to tell me about the chiropractor. These are intelligent women, but they have been told their entire life that these things work.
And, indeed, they DO feel better after a visit to the chiropractor. It’s a bit harder to explain the concept of ‘regression to a mean’ to them. But I could not do it AT ALL with a single clear, simple, unemotional explanation.
Rather than creating the Grand Canyon in a 40-day flood, presenting skepticism to those with a painted-on “I Believe” button is more a process of rain beating the mountains down into the ocean, of the weeds splitting the foundations. It is slow, it is one-on-one, and it can be frustrating. However, this is how we teach, one person at a time.
(This is a brief overview of the manufacture of paper and of plastic, and is not intended to be comprehensive, or a chemistry class.)
How do you answer? If you give what you think is the ‘correct’ answer, you say ‘paper’ or you’ve brought your own bags. Let’s examine that choice.
The paper bags used in grocery stores begin in the forest, with the timber industry. Even though trees are a renewable source, there is more to producing new paper than planting new trees. The paper industry is one of the dirtiest industries around. The chemicals used in the paper pulp process include sulfur, bleaches, and acids. The process uses huge quantities of water, which must be treated and cleaned, a process which also uses chemicals. According to a representative of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, paper manufacturing also receives a larger number of complaints than refineries on ‘nuisance odors ‘ which is a term meaning that the facilities emit very strong, disagreeable odors, as unpleasant to live near as a feedlot. Processing facilities must control odors to the same extent that they must control pollutant emissions. Odor is a non-trivial pollution problem.
Paper has a limited ability to be recycled. On each trip through recycling, paper must be chopped and shredded, which shortens the fiber length. Eventually, the fibers become too small to use and must be discarded into landfill, as do many of the manufacturing byproducts from paper manufacture.
What about plastic? Grocery stores bags are made of polyethylene, which begins as the ethane component of natural gas. The primary emission from polyethylene manufacture is from natural-gas fired heaters, which supply heat or steam for the process. Natural gas is the cleanest burning fuel, and natural gas wells are clean and low-profile – a valve sticking up out of the ground as opposed to the ‘pumping units’ associated with oil wells. The conversion of ethane into polyethylene is close to 99% efficient. The feedstocks for ethylene are basically ethane – clean and odorless, and steam. Additionally, polyethylene can be recycled almost infinitely. Even though the molecular weight of the polymer chains will change with recycling, it’s still plastic and can be reused. It is also inert- in some locations, polyethylene has been chopped into sand-sized bits and incorporated into heavy clay soils, to lighten them as you would do with sand.
The manufacture of polyethylene requires about 6% of the water that paper manufacture requires. As our population grows and the supply of fresh water becomes increasingly scarce, industrial usage of water becomes an important consideration in the chain.
Transportation adds more cost to the paper product than to plastic. Paper is heavier, so trucking costs, for a given ‘carrying capacity’ of the bag, are higher, as is the amount of pollution from the gasoline needed to transport the denser product.
Frequently, the public’s attitudes and beliefs about environmental consequences of our choices are shaped by sound bites and pictures from the media. Pictures of sea turtles with a plastic grocery bag stuffed into their throat, or a sea mammal with a set of six-pack rings caught around its head, are moving and emotional. These items do end up in the oceans, due to sloppy handling. However, legible newspapers from 70 years ago have also been mined from landfills. Searches on the EPA’s website will turn up studies showing that the TOTAL environmental impact from the manufacture and long-term landfill storage of paper bags exceeds that of plastic bags – from the mining of the raw materials (trees or natural gas), through manufacture including energy requirements, pollutants, water use, and hazardous wastes, to the volume of a bag in the landfill.
As skeptics, we must look at the entire picture. The issue is more complicated than I can discuss in a short blog post, but critical thinking skills can be used on these issues just as readily as they can on issues of quackery and pseudoscience. I posted this article in a slightly different format on a well-known skeptic website a few months ago, and was attacked for either being a shill for Al Gore or a shill for Big Oil. I’m not sure how I can be both at the same time, but it shows the knee-jerk reaction of people on hot-button issues. Although most people wanted to disagree with my statement that plastic is a better choice (as compared to paper), the only evidence given was that sometimes “bags end up in the ocean and get caught on bird beaks or swallowed by whales”. This is true, but the answer is not to ban plastic over paper, but to handle any bag properly through reuse, recycling, and proper disposal.
The option with the least environmental impact is to carry reusable shopping bags, or carry personal bags. However, if you are faced with a choice between paper or plastic, plastic is the environmentally responsible decision.
A few days ago, my aunt sent me the name of a ‘nutritional supplement’ that her cousin had sold her sometime back. When she first told me about it, I pointed out that it sounded fishy. I did some research on the product, and found that it a product sold through a multi-level marketing company called “FirstFitness“. The website is more dedicated towards promoting new distributorships than its products, and like most MLMs, stresses how the participants can quit their stressful, high income jobs and work from home a few hours a week, and eventually win a Mercedes, dream vacations, and the like. Of course, you have to sign up 10 people, who each need to sign up 10 people…
She was persuaded to buy something called Lipomax 10, advertised as a homeopathic remedy to ‘support optimal liver function’ and ‘help relieve the symptoms of bloating, fatigue, water retention, allergies, sluggish bowels and a sluggish metabolism.’ That’s some powerful stuff!
The ingredients include ground dandelion seed, ground Celandine stem, milk thistle powder, and a ‘proprietary blend’ which is 99% turmeric extract, turmeric being a spice that gives mustard its characteristic yellow color and is a component of many curry powder blends.
For milk thistle, I did find that some research has been done, through the National Institute of Health, but through the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicines. If you’ve kept up with the news, you’ll remember that the sponsors of this center have been disappointed that the research has turned up no efficacy in anything they’ve studied to date. As far as milk thistle:
- There have been some studies of milk thistle on liver disease in humans, but these have been small. Some promising data have been reported, but study results at this time are mixed.
- Although some studies conducted outside the United States support claims of oral milk thistle to improve liver function, there have been flaws in study design and reporting. To date, there is no conclusive evidence to prove its claimed uses.
- Recent NCCAM-funded research includes a phase II study to better understand the use of milk thistle for chronic hepatitis C. Additional research, cofunded by NCCAM and the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, includes studies of milk thistle for chronic hepatitis C and nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (liver disease that occurs in people who drink little or no alcohol).
- The National Cancer Institute and the National Institute of Nursing Research are also studying milk thistle, for cancer prevention and to treat complications in HIV patients.
In other words, nada.
My quick search of the dandelion and celandine showed even less promise – all the links were to natural or homeopathic sites, and talked about the wonders of these all-natural ingredients, and how they have been used ‘well known and used throughout Europe’ which apparently is meant to confer status. The sites claim that these herb promote health, aid digestion, improve liver function (apparently most of us are going around with non-functioning livers), prevent colds, inhibit tumor growth, improve appetite, cure yeast infections, and decrease glucose levels. Considering that my aunt is a diabetic, I’m not sure that taking dandelion capsules would be a good idea, if it really did change glucose levels in the blood willy-nilly.
I think my aunt was a bit embarrassed, and threw the stuff away. I suggested that she take the company’s money-back guarantee to heart and get her $35 back. She needn’t be embarrassed. I don’t know the cousin who sold her the stuff very well, but I recall that she is a bit incredulous about a great many things (she out one time belonged to a religious group who thought they could raise people from the dead), and was likely merely trying to supplement her income. The herbal, natural, and homeopathic supplements generate billions of dollars in sales each year, so there are a lot of well-intentioned, educated people who are uninformed about what is being sold, legally. Oprah is a big source of unsubstantiated garbage. For instance, she touts Acai berry, and sales increase dramatically. Wikipedia states:
Recently, the açai “berry” has been touted and marketed as a highly beneficial dietary supplement. Companies sell açaí berry products in the form of tablets, juice, smoothies, instant drink powders, and whole fruit.
Marketers of these products make claims that açai provides increased energy levels, improved sexual performance, improved digestion, detoxification, high fiberantioxidant content, improved skin appearance, improved heart health, improved sleep, and reduction of cholesterol levels. More dubious claims include reversal of diabetes and other chronic illnesses, as well as expanding size of the penis and increasing men’s sexual virility and sexual attractiveness to women. weight loss product.
As of March 2009, there are no controlled studies backing up any of these claims. According to ABC News correspondent Susan Donaldson, these products have not been evaluated (in the US) by the FDA, and their efficacy is questionable. In late 2008, lawyers for The Oprah Winfrey Show began investigating alleged statements from supplement manufacturers who suggested that frequent Oprah guest Dr. Mehmet Oz had recommended their product or açai in general for weight loss. (Link)
The best we can do is to educate, gently, one person at a time. This morning, my mom sent me another one of those emails about how Swiffer cleaning solution kills pets, and added this note: ” thought I’d send it on just in case. please don’t google it and correct it, just delete.” She meant, don’t send her a link fromSnopes about how this is not true. I of course looked it up, and found that it not only wasn’t true and had numerous factual errors, the manufacturer of Swiffer, Proctor & Gamble, had issued press releases about the misinformation being circulated. Someone sent that link to my mom, someone who had probably received it via email on a list with hundreds of other email addresses in the chain, and some people would stop buying a perfectly safe product, and pass the email along yet again. I love my mom, and I’m not criticizing her, but she didn’t want to know the truth, and certainly didn’t want to respond back to the person who sent the email to her. And that is why bad information persists against the evidence.
Trick or Treatment
I finished this book on the same day that the Point of Inquiry podcast interview with author Simon Singh.
The first nugget in this book is the discussion of science, evidence, double-blind testing, and historical accounts of how medical science has moved forward, ranging from the story of how George Washington was one in a long line of people killed by excessive blood-letting, Florence Nightgale’s work on improving sanitation in hospitals, and Dr. John Snow’s tracking of the cholera epidemic in Victorian London. They then explain the placebo effect, how it works on tested medicines such as aspirin, and how it works with tested but ineffective remedies.
The authors also set about explaining the history of several alternate treatments (homeopathy, chiropractic, herbal remedies), how clinical trials have been conducted, and what the outcome has been. If you expect a book thoroughly dismissing every type of alternative treatment, you will be disappointed, but neither will you find unqualified support. In general, they report several herbal remedies that have been successfully tested (but warn of both unknown efficacies, dangerous side effects, and high costs); that some chiropractic seems to help minor back pain (but you can also suffer severe injury from neck manipulations); and that acupuncture has limited effect in minor pain (but is largely placebo, and the films of Chinese doctors doing open-heart surgery on ‘anesthetized’ patients are hoaxes).
Two particular parts I enjoyed reading for new information: First, the history about acupuncture having been largely discarded in China until Mao pushed traditional Chinese treatments both from a standpoint of national pride as well as a way to cut health care costs. Second, I appreciated the story about Randi’s involvement with investigating Jacques Benveniste’s Nature paper claiming prove of the efficacy of a particular homeopathic treatment.
My opinion is that the authors did a thorough investigation of the evidence upholding alternative treatment therapies, researched the history, provided documentation supporting their claims, discuss enough science so that the casual reader will understand the concept of evidence-based medicine, and were fair and unbiased in their conclusions.