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A Rush to Forward – email chains and critical thinking

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(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.

Written by Geek Goddess

November 25, 2009 at 8:46 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

Two 150 ft crosses allows Grace Community to claim Houston as theirs.

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I am personally not a very religious person.  I am also not ant-religion. However, I do get offended and a little worried when a particular church proclaims that the city I live in is theirs.

Just north of Houston, Texas is the Grace Community Church.  It is your average megachurch, except for a peculiar billboard next to the freeway.  On this billboard is a picture of a large cross and the proclamation:

Marking our city

After staring at this billboard everyday while I am stuck in traffic, I decided to check out what exactly they mean by “marking our city.”  I had assumed that they were talking about their complex of church buildings. They aren’t.  The city in question is actually Houston itself.crossproject_markhouston

Their intentions can be found on the church’s website. They are planning on building two 150-foot tall crosses, one on each side of Houston on  I-45.  According to the website (emphasis mine):

These will stand as a proclamation of the Grace of God over Houston with a prayer tower inviting people to pray for God to move in our city

There is also a quote from Lou and Paula Gallardo (could this be the guy from Amerisciences?) that says:

A cross at each end of the city is a great dream and will draw people to God in an unprecedented way. I want Houston to be marked for God.

I know I am making a mountain out of a mole hill, but it still bothers me.  The assumption that everyone in the city believes the same as they do disturbs me.  Or worse, they know that others don’t think the same, but they don’t care or they want to convert the nonbelievers.

More information can be found here.

Written by bort901

January 24, 2009 at 10:07 am

It Came from the Local News: Ear Candling…..

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Finding accurate and well-informed reporting on what has come to be known as alternative medicine emerging from the confines of a local news station is a rare occurence these days. The trend of replacing dedicated science reporters with generalists is becoming worsening as more and more news outlets are feeling economic pressure, but it is only part of the problem. I also place blame on the overall decline in the general public’s scientific literacy. But every now and then I do come across a reasonable segment that was written by a journalist who at last attempts to bring some critical thinking to the table. These rare gems leave me with a glimmer of hope for the profession.

This unfortunately was not the case when I came across the December 16th report on ear candling by David Schechter of WFAA-TV in Dallas. Mr. Schechter seems like a nice enough guy. Heck, his bio even reveals that he “wants to leave the world a little better than he found it.”, and I have no reason to doubt his sincerity. But it pains me to read reporting of this nature, especially coming from a winner of 15 regional Emmy awards including 4 for best reporter.

Now I don’t know what kind of science background Schechter may or may not have, likely none considering this example, but we deserve better from the men and women who bring us the news. Providing accurate information and perspective instead of forcing an undeserved sense of controversy in the name of balance, avoiding meaningless anecdotes, and providing a solid example of critical thinking to the public are a significant part of what journalism is supposed to be about. This, however, is not journalism. It is fluff reporting and it does us a disservice. The general public is confused enough about science as it is.

In the report, Schechter reveals that,

“Allergies, cold and flu affect hundreds of thousands of North Texans. Many constantly search for ways to ease their symptoms.

Some have turned to a controversial home remedy called ear candling. And while some swear by it, but others say you should swear it off.” (grammatical error in original)

Don’t let this fool you. Schechter didn’t do any real research on the subject to come up with this conclusion. He decided on a topic and then found someone in favor and someone oppossed to it, and treated each side equally. It is an inappropriate way to approach scientific reporting. There is nothing controversial about ear candling at all. Some do swear by it, and others do say you should avoid it, but that is true of everything. One can even find a scientist that still believes the earth is flat, or hollow, or being revolved around by the sun. Abortion is controversial. The physician-assisted death of a terminally ill patient is controversial. Ear candling is not controversial.

 Ear candling is shoving a cone made of combustible material, typcially linen or cotton soaked in wax, into your ear and setting it on fire. It’s absurd, it lacks even the tiniest shred of plausibility, and it is potentially dangerous. Stating it is controversial implies that there are two legitimate sides to the discussion of whether or not ear candling is effective as a home remedy. In reality, there are a few quacks who promote it, and a very small percentage of the American public who have been fooled by it, and then there is the weight of the near totality of the medical community and the scientific literature which think it is bogus. It isn’t even a home remedy necessarily, as practitioners of various unproven healing modalities employ candling in their office, often for hundreds of dollars per session.

Schechter follows with the ubiquitous testimonial section of the typical fluff report. This time, we are assurred by a massage therapist that,

“This tradition dates back 2,500 years,” she says. “And was employed by the Egyptian, Tibetan, Indian and Aztec Cultures.”

Others have claimed that ear candling was even employed by healers in the ancient civilization of Atlantis. Still more believe that in the distant future, after mankind has suffered near complete annihilation as the result of nuclear war, a race of sentient apes will establish control over the remaining humans and will practice ear candling to assist in flea and tick removal. Okay I made that second one up.

Comical pseudohistory aside, the claims made regarding ear candling are unfounded. Even if accurate, there simply is no need for the overwhelming majority of folks to worry about earwax. And it is impossible based on rudimentary knowledge of human anatomy, for these candles to in any way lead to a physiologic change in any structure beyond the tympanic membrane such as the brain, sinuses, or nasal passages.

One of the first medical maxims I learned as a student was to never place anything in your ear smaller than your elbow, and that includes Q-tips. It simply isn’t necessary, despite what our mothers told us, for the most people to clean out their ears. Behind them yes, but not in them. If you are truly interested in the diagnosis and management of cerumen impaction, please by all means check out the clinical guidelines recently released by the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery (AAO-HNS). It’s a real page-turner.

The second dictum I learned was to never poke a skunk. This usually applies to ordering uneccessary labs and imaging studies but it also applies to ear candling. If you only need to know the serum sodium, you shouldn’t check a basic metabolic profile because you can put good money on that potassium coming back falsely elevated, buying the patient another blood draw to confirm the result as spurious. Similarly, if a procedure isn’t going to help don’t do it, especially if it carries with it the risk of dripping hot wax onto the tympanic membrane, deafness, catastrophic loss of sideburns, or burning your house down.

The devices aren’t FDA approved and just about every legitimate medical organization has spoken out against them.  Studies have shown that ear candling doesn’t create negative pressure, as theorized by proponents, and if it did it would lead to severe damage to the inner ear. It doesn’t remove ear wax or anything else from inside the ear (or sinus cavities), doesn’t in any way lead to improved health or a boosted immune system, and is dangerous. Any residue left over after a session is the melted wax from the apparatus itself and nothing more.

Schecterl even provides the standard few lines of skepticism in his report for a local physician to squeeze in some accurate information on the subject. But this token bit of reality is sqeezed between some powerful bunk. As usual, the report concludes with another testimonial and accompanying credulous set-up.

“So, is ear candling still a hot idea?

It has been around a long time.

“I think it does have value,” Siegel says. “I believe it is actually up to the individual. If they feel that it has value and they can benefit from this, absolutely.”

And Siegel says clients may swear by it – for reasons that go beyond science – the warmth of the candle and the overall experience just feels good.

“I’m very relaxed and I feel clear and I also feel more clean,” Rodriguez says.”

Being around for a long time is not proof of efficacy. Anyone familiar with the history of medicine should realize this. For centuries physicians bled patients, or purged them with toxic mercury-containing compounds like calomel, based on anecdotal evidence that it worked. It didn’t, and people died because of it that would have likely recovered from self-limited conditions. An adult individual can choose to take part in ear candling. I fully support that right. But if someone is convinced to choose a risky therapy based on misinformation and outright lies it is fraud, regardless of whether or not the client thinks it feels good. That can easily be explained by any number of factors unrelated to efficacy of a treatment. There are safer means of achieving the same result. This report could have been a means of providing accurate information to the public so that they might make an informed choice.

Written by skepticpedi

December 18, 2008 at 9:21 am