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Heavy Metal

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The October 27, 2009  edition of  Wall Street Journal ran a story called “Metals: Panacea or Placebo?” by science reporter Melinda Beck that put a skeptical eye on claims of medical and health benefits to the use of metals (copper, silver, gold, titanium, and magnetic items) as adornments and “dietary ‘supplements.” The same week, a blog post by Steven Novella at Science-Based Medicine discussed the recently published “Therapeutic effects of magnetic and copper bracelets in osteoarthritis: A randomised placebo-controlled crossover trial” from Complementary Therapies in Medicine (abstract), which documented a controlled test on the efficacy of magnetic or copper bracelets to help arthritis and other ailments. Unsurprisingly, any benefits from the different bracelets were no better than placebo. Readers are referred to his excellent write-up for a discussion of the study and links to other peer-reviewed work. In it, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, a dollar-sucking entity foisted on the taxpayers by Congress, admits that it has found no evidence for beneficial effects on fibromyalgia, migraines, or other painful conditions, from the use of metal bracelets. The idea of people volunteering to put large amounts of metal and metal solutions into their bodies intrigued me, so I reviewed the current state of Metal Medicine.

A couple years ago, Paul Karason became briefly famous as the “blue man” whose skin turned blue due to argyria — a condition where silver collects in the skin and organs and reacts with light, much as the silver emulsion on film. He dosed himself with silver solutions that he created in his home, a procedure easy for anyone who has taken a basic high school chemistry class. “I did it all on my own,” he said. “Originally, I just saw an ad for a colloidal silver generator in a magazine and the picture stuck in my head like a song might stick in your head. I had a friend who had severe petroleum poisoning, and I heard colloidal silver was helpful for that, and that’s how I started.” In the same interview, he admitted that his original health problem, dermatitis, was not cured by ingesting silver, although he continued to drink silver solutions daily. Proponents of colloidal silver claim that ingesting silver can cure or treat colds, flu, cancer, diabetes, herpes, shingles, and HIV/AIDS, among other ailments. Silver solutions, such as silver nitrate, have been used as anti-microbial disinfectants for many years, and frequently used as eyedrops for newborns to prevent conjunctivitis (although most former uses have been supplanted by newer, less toxic treatments). The FDA has repeatedly stated that ingesting silver is not beneficial, is not even safe, and can cause kidney damage.

Of course, one man’s woo is another man’s scam. A company called Purest Colloids charges that Karason was not using the correct silver (he’s ingesting silver in an ionic solution instead of pure silver in a colloid form), and that the stories about his condition are a hoax on the American people. From their web site:

The Blue Man charade demonstrates once again that the mass media cannot be trusted to report anything that even resembles a truthful “news” story. All “news” today is propagated with an agenda just like the phony economic statistics put out the U.S. government.

In other words, a conspiracy to make people afraid to take silver supplements. Oh, yeah.

Silver is not the oldest “magic metal.” Magnets have been tried as treatments for thousands of years. Randi has written extensively about the Q-ray and magnetic bracelets, and those scams continue to be perpetrated on the public with the usual blather about aligning one’s auras, improving the blood flow by acting on the iron in hemoglobin, and other wishful thinking. Dozens of websites sell these items, and while I do not wish to drive traffic to their sites, it’s interesting to poke around to see the prices, claims, and testimonials. “I thought I could save money,” says one alleged testimonial, “by buying another magnetic bracelet from another company advertising them at half the price with 5000 gauss. Well, let me tell you, I was scammed! When that ‘other’ bracelet came in, I checked the magnetic strength by seeing how strongly it attaches to a piece of metal compared to your bracelet…Thanks for a great product!” To view the going prices for lumps of metal, see for example Ace Magnetics or AACopper, which warns you again those cheap Chinese copper bracelets that don’t leave a green ring on your wrist. By doing a search of various magnet proponents, you’ll find you can now buy magnetic mattress pads, cushions, hair brushes — and even styling gel! I suspect if you spend $30 for magnetic hair spray, you are going to see some effects. (These items are ubiquitous on the internet, and a new company pops up every time one is shut down. For instance, in 2002, Quackwatch reported that the California Attorney General sued European Health Concepts for selling magnetic mattress pads and cushions. They’ve been out of business since then, but Googling ‘magnetic mattress pad’ turned up a dozen sites, selling pads running upwards of $800.)

Magnets are cheap to manufacture, but for a classy scam you need something more exotic. Gold has an ancient history as a nearly-magical elixir to provide immortality. For many years, gold salts were used to treat lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, although the toxicity of the metal caused mouth sores, kidney damage, and occasionally, problems with the bone marrow’s ability to make new blood cells (a side effect that killed one of my engineering professors). One supplier, Optimox, carries colloidal gold in tablet form. Although their site states “For use as a source of colloidal metallic gold without medical or health claims,” the subsequent copy clearly implies that colloidal gold can detoxify the liver, act as a anti-oxidant, control joint pain and swelling, and promote resistance to infection. (Since my 50 hours of college chemistry is nearly 30 years old, I won’t embarrass myself with a critique of all their claims about redox reactions, but invite knowledgeable readers to comment.) Another alarming claim, among many, is that taking 30 mg of gold per day for one month increases IQ scores by 20%. In rough terms, that means a month’s worth of tablets could take a person of average IQ into the top 5-10% of the population.

A more recent trend in metal therapies is titanium, which started in Japan. Generally, companies market titanium bracelets or pendants, claiming that the material enhances the flow of energy and creates a positive charge that cancels out pain’s negative charge — i.e., neutralizing the pain. To my knowledge, this particular benefit of titanium has not made it into the anesthesiologist’s tool bag. Some sites sell titanium items to relieve stress or back pain, and feature testimonials from professional athletes. One company, Rob Diamond, explains how the bracelet causes ions in the blood to push against vessel walls, causing heat, which improves circulation and carries away toxins. One of the biggest hawkers of titanium products is Phiten, founded by a chiropractor in Japan. This company has taken the snake oil to a new level, infusing titanium particles into lotions, clothing, shoes, and bedding. Testimonials from Olympic athletes and baseball players spread the word, enforcing the placebo effects of the items. They also market a product called “G Water” which they claim will suppress fatigue of the brain when you spray it on the head.

As the author of the WSJ article remarked “Perhaps if consumers became smarter, they would be more skeptical of such claims.”

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Written by Geek Goddess

March 4, 2010 at 9:50 am

Sam scores an interview with Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson!

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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!

Part one:

Part two:

Written by Geek Goddess

October 26, 2009 at 10:51 am

Interview with Dr. Eugenie Scott

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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 (cmalachi@hotmail.com) 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!

Written by Geek Goddess

October 12, 2009 at 2:50 pm

Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day

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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.

Written by Geek Goddess

September 6, 2009 at 3:47 pm

Paper or Plastic?

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(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.

Written by Geek Goddess

May 26, 2009 at 4:02 pm

Skeptical Pearls #2: Beware the Testimonial…..

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Faster than a speeding case report. More powerful than a double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Able to leap peer review in a single bound. Look! Up on the internet! It’s a story. It’s an anecdote. It’s a testimonial!

Every implausible and unproven quack therapy, from acupuncture to quantum healing, comes bearing testimonials of its effectiveness. These stories are typically brief, to the point, extremely powerful and, across the board, absolutely worthless. To anyone with a decent skeptical filter in place, the reliance on testimonials is an obvious sign of a complete lack of credible support for one’s claims. Yet to far too many people there is no introductory phrase more meaningful than “In my experience”. And no amount of published contradictory data or number of explanations from critically minded experts can match the effect from just one of the seemingly neverending supply of these uncontrolled, unblinded, and often tall, tales.

Sadly, even outright harm and suffering, or the complete lack of achieving the claimed benefit, are often unable to shake the faith of one who has stepped over the line that seperates credulity from a more critical approach to one’s health. It is far too easy to rationalize away these failures, placing the blame on themselves or the medical community, when the stranger whose gout was cured by taking goat urine supplements is trusted more than the family doctor. Perhaps the believer doesn’t realize that the near totality of the testimonials seen on television or on the internet are fabricated. Maybe they don’t realize that a significant number of them, as is often the case with fraudulent cancer cures, even when provided by real people are found to be the former words of the now deceased, victims of their disease process, their lack of critical thinking skills, and the bastards profiting off of them. It is more likely, however, that the undue influence of testimonials is hard-wired in the human brain, a remnant of something which at one point bestowed a survival advantage on our primitive ancestors.

There is a reason why quacks rely on testimonials. And that is because they don’t have science in their corner. Sure they will jump on poorly designed studies, usually coming out of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine and published in biased pseudojournals, and tout them as proof of their legitimacy. But they will just as quickly denigrate methodological naturalism and the methods of so-called “western science” when better studies come along revealing their pet delusion to be a charade. The testimonial circumvents this problem, rendering science irrelevant. This is a recipe for disaster, or at the very least a lighter wallet.

Proven treatments don’t need stories. In my line of work I often am faced with parents who refuse recommended practices such as vaccines and the administration of intramuscular vitamin K for newborns. When I am discussing the care of a child with parents, and presenting them with treatment options or evidence-based prophylaxis regimens, I don’t tell them about the time I used a particular treatment and how it cured the patient, or how I had this one kid who suffered a poor outcome because they didn’t get something I recommended. There are too many uncontrolled variables in most clinical situations to trust such anecdotes.  I have to rely on good data, which should not consist of anecdotes regardless of how many I might collect over my career. I would be no better than the quacks I often rant about were I to attempt to manipulate parents with emotional testimonials.

Written by skepticpedi

May 12, 2009 at 11:54 pm

Breaking it Down: How Americans are Special Pleading…..

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Taking a handicap spot

14%- “Of course doctors don’t think it works. You can’t expect to understand my healing powers with western science!”

21%- “God organized fossils that way to make it look like evolution is true…..as a test.”

25%- “My psychic abilities are always blocked whenever a skeptic is around.”

13%- “Recent high definition images of the surface of Mars don’t show any evidence of alien civilization because NASA is covering it all up!”

15%- “We haven’t found any physical remains of Bigfoot because it is an elusive creature and it is rare for fossils to form in the first place. So it is unreasonable to ask for that kind of proof that Bigfoot exists.”

12%- “Other researchers may be easily fooled but I have over thirty years experience in investigating ghostly visitations. I can tell the difference between a hoax and the real thing.”

Written by skepticpedi

May 8, 2009 at 6:22 pm

Posted in General Skepticism

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