Friday, November 27, 2009

Reprint of the libalous Simon Singh article

Here is the full unedited version, as published by The Guardian, of Simon Singh’s article that was critical of chiropractors and is subject to legal threats by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) as reported by Holfordwatch and the Quackometer.

To help support Simon's case head over to Sense about Science
Be sure to sign the support statement

Beware the spinal trap
~written by Simon Singh

This is Chiropractic Awareness Week. So let’s be aware. How about some awareness that may prevent harm and help you make truly informed choices? First, you might be surprised to know that the founder of chiropractic therapy, Daniel David Palmer, wrote that, “99% of all diseases are caused by displaced vertebrae”. In the 1860s, Palmer began to develop his theory that the spine was involved in almost every illness because the spinal cord connects the brain to the rest of the body. Therefore any misalignment could cause a problem in distant parts of the body.
In fact, Palmer’s first chiropractic intervention supposedly cured a man who had been profoundly deaf for 17 years. His second treatment was equally strange, because he claimed that he treated a patient with heart trouble by correcting a displaced vertebra.

You might think that modern chiropractors restrict themselves to treating back problems, but in fact they still possess some quite wacky ideas. The fundamentalists argue that they can cure anything. And even the more moderate chiropractors have ideas above their station. The British Chiropractic Association claims that their members can help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying, even though there is not a jot of evidence. This organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments.

I can confidently label these treatments as bogus because I have co-authored a book about alternative medicine with the world’s first professor of complementary medicine, Edzard Ernst. He learned chiropractic techniques himself and used them as a doctor. This is when he began to see the need for some critical evaluation. Among other projects, he examined the evidence from 70 trials exploring the benefits of chiropractic therapy in conditions unrelated to the back. He found no evidence to suggest that chiropractors could treat any such conditions.

But what about chiropractic in the context of treating back problems? Manipulating the spine can cure some problems, but results are mixed. To be fair, conventional approaches, such as physiotherapy, also struggle to treat back problems with any consistency. Nevertheless, conventional therapy is still preferable because of the serious dangers associated with chiropractic.

In 2001, a systematic review of five studies revealed that roughly half of all chiropractic patients experience temporary adverse effects, such as pain, numbness, stiffness, dizziness and headaches. These are relatively minor effects, but the frequency is very high, and this has to be weighed against the limited benefit offered by chiropractors.

More worryingly, the hallmark technique of the chiropractor, known as high-velocity, low-amplitude thrust, carries much more significant risks. This involves pushing joints beyond their natural range of motion by applying a short, sharp force. Although this is a safe procedure for most patients, others can suffer dislocations and fractures.

Worse still, manipulation of the neck can damage the vertebral arteries, which supply blood to the brain. So-called vertebral dissection can ultimately cut off the blood supply, which in turn can lead to a stroke and even death. Because there is usually a delay between the vertebral dissection and the blockage of blood to the brain, the link between chiropractic and strokes went unnoticed for many years. Recently, however, it has been possible to identify cases where spinal manipulation has certainly been the cause of vertebral dissection.

Laurie Mathiason was a 20-year-old Canadian waitress who visited a chiropractor 21 times between 1997 and 1998 to relieve her low-back pain. On her penultimate visit she complained of stiffness in her neck. That evening she began dropping plates at the restaurant, so she returned to the chiropractor. As the chiropractor manipulated her neck, Mathiason began to cry, her eyes started to roll, she foamed at the mouth and her body began to convulse. She was rushed to hospital, slipped into a coma and died three days later. At the inquest, the coroner declared: “Laurie died of a ruptured vertebral artery, which occurred in association with a chiropractic manipulation of the neck.

This case is not unique. In Canada alone there have been several other women who have died after receiving chiropractic therapy, and Professor Ernst has identified about 700 cases of serious complications among the medical literature. This should be a major concern for health officials, particularly as under-reporting will mean that the actual number of cases is much higher.

Bearing all of this in mind, I will leave you with one message for Chiropractic Awareness Week – if spinal manipulation were a drug with such serious adverse effects and so little demonstrable benefit, then it would almost certainly have been taken off the market.

How much is most?

The word most is used many times in speech. Mira Ariel of Tel Aviv University’s department of linguistics has been studying just how much people mean when they use the word ‘most.’ Using various research methods including questionnaires and looking at previous studies done in both America and the UK Prof. Ariel has come up with an answer. According to Ariel’s findings when people use the word ‘most’ they appear to mean 80-95% of whatever sample being discussed.

This appears to be independent of what the objects are; human, animals or inanimate objects, as well as who is using the word. Most linguists until this research had believed that the range fell between 51 and 99% and had the possibility to include 100%. Mira Ariel disagrees with this although her research does fall within these bounds.

While these results appear to be true for now, professor Ariel believes that the range could shift over the next 100 years. This is part of how language works however and the colloquial definition of ‘most’ is different now than it was in the past. Previously the word could easily have meant less than fifty percent; the word ‘most’ merely meant who had the larger portion. This could be a portion of 50% or even less depending on the situation. Linguistic ambiguity seems to be exemplified by a word like ‘most’ but Professor Ariel is working to show that the ambiguity of these words is for the most part in people’s heads.

For information about Mira Ariel's work visit here.


Sunday, November 22, 2009

Scientists Create RNA Chains in the Lab

Cross-posted here

A group of Italian scientists have reconstructed a possible early step in evolution. Ernesto Di Mauro and his team used cyclic nucleotides to create long strands of RNA from individual units using primarily water. Many evolutionary biologists believe that RNA was one of the first biological molecules to be present on Earth. The nucleotides used by the scientists merged together in water to form polymers over 100 nucleotides long.

The nucleotides that would have been present on prebiotic Earth would have been based upon simple chemicals and would have been quite easy to form chains. It has been previously shown that RNA precursors can self-assemble into linear polymers but scientists as of yet do not know the origin of informational polymers. Formamide chemistry has the potential to gather all of the precursors needed to form pregenetic informational polymers.

Di Mauro and his team thought that “the solution must have relied on a simple but robust process.” This ideal is why a formamide solution was utilized; it is simple and relatively stable yet still is reactive. The processes used by the team show that the formation of cyclic monophosphate nucleosides is chemically simple and prebiotically plausible. Like prebiotic Earth the solution temperatures used were around 40-60 °C. These nucleotides are similar to those that make up individual pieces of RNA or DNA (A, T, G, and C) with the difference of an extra chemical bond and a ring-like shape. The chains that were made in the lab were done without the use of enzymes or inorganic catalysts to set off the reactions as prebiotic conditions would require.

The non-enzymatic pregenetic polymerization done in this study could have taken place in warm little pond conditions like those depicted by Darwin in Origin of Species. As more information is studied in labs like those of Di Mauro and his collegues the closer scientists are to understanding not only the conditions of prebiotic Earth but the chemical processes which gave rise to biological life. Continuing research into chemical biology will help scientists know just how rare of an even life arising is and help determine the likelihood of it arising elsewhere in the universe as well.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Quick update

Ok, first off an apology for my absence from the blog I have been crazy busy. I am writing for an online essay group, working, going to school and the big exciting news! I am the Portland science writer for the examiner now! check it out! Go me! ^_^ sorry for the self promotion but everyone should read my articles. I will be keeping the science there and the woo here so look for my science news over there. Ill be posting something relevant as soon as I get a chance.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Book review! Phil Plait's Death from the Skies!

The wonderful, talented and amazing Phil Plait awes readers yet again with his book Death from the Skies! Phil Plait is the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation, Discovery Magazine blogger, author and astronomer. In Death from the Skies! Phil walks his readers though some of the ways the universe is trying to kill us. This covers everything from getting hit with a meteor to what the fate of the universe may be. Turns out the universe's demise isn't going to be as spectacular as Douglas Adams portrays it in The Restraunt at the End of the Universe. That is too bad but in other news, Phil tells us in no uncertain terms that at some point the universe will succeed in trying to kill us and we won't be there to stare out into the nothingness anyway. This book is a must read for any science or astronomy fan out there, regardless of skill. Phil presents the scenario's in loving detail but which is still easy to follow. From the average reader to the astrophysics PhD. this book will be a favorite for sure.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Free Will

Having recently read Richard Dawkins excellent book The God Delusion and then finding the Scientific American article on free will (Found here) I find myself doing some thinking on the concept of free will. Human experience leads us to believe that we are in control of our actions, desires, and above all which choices we make. I have begun to wonder about if this is true. While I would like to think that the choices I have made are truly mine; it does seem that science has no way to tell me this is true. What in our brains makes humans able to choose for ourselves? It seems to me that from a materialistic point of view our decisions are nothing more than cause and effect. A stimuli leads our brains to trigger a function which causes us to act in accordance to past experience. This leaves the concept of free will as a figment of the mind. A happy coincidence so to speak. We feel that we are really effecting our lives and making our own decisions, why should this be true? Does some outside force give us supernatural abilities to supplant what our brains do? Is the mysterious soul where the seat of our choices lies? If the soul is where free will enters the equation then it can effect the physical realm therefore it can not be incorporeal. If that is the case then we should be able to subject it to testing, although science thus far has shown no evidence of this effervescent soul. As much as I hate to think it, after all I like to think I am in charge of my own path just like anyone else, science has shown me no reason for this to be true. All in all however, despite the lack of scientific evidence for free will, I find myself agnostic about it. I am inclined to believe humans have free will, even if it is just a figment of imagination, and as such I think there is a chance for science to agree with my assessment if only we could design an experiment to show it.