Scientific Skeptic

So we keep asking, over and over, until a handful of earth stops our mouths – but is that an answer?

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The end is near?

russell_charles_taze_1911_In West Palm Beach, Florida, the Jehovah’s Witnesses are beginning their convention season by hosting 14 consecutive weeks of conventions.  That’s a lot of doom and gloom, considering that this year’s theme is “Keep On The Watch!”, relating current world events such as earthquakes and the swine flu to biblical prophecies of the apocalypse.  Heavy stuff indeed.

Religious prophecies of the apocalypse and the end of the world are nothing new, of course.  Many proposed dates have come and gone, and at least these particular Jehovah’s Witnesses temper their predictions this time out:  “We feel it is imminent.  We can’t really put a date on it, and the scriptures tell us that nobody knows days or hours, but we’ll look at the signs as a theme of our convention and keep on the watch,” says spokesman Richard Ferris.

Why do they feel it’s imminent?  What are the signs?  “The fighting against nations, we’re seeing more earthquakes, you can look at the swine flu, all this, and it just points to the things that shows we are getting very close to what we feel is the end.”

Well, I don’t want to be flippant here.  But earthquakes and other natural disasters are…natural.  They happen all the time, have happened all the time, and will continue to happen all the time.  They happened well before humans were here, in fact even before life was here, and they will continue to happen long after we’re gone.  We only consider them “disastrous” because they kill living things that are nearby, but it’s really just natural processes brought about by the fact that the Earth is composed of huge rocky plates and crusts that move, which is bound to cause some turmoil on the surface.

Fighting against nations?  Again, I don’t think there has been a time in recorded history when humans have not fought one another.  Let’s face it:  looking over the course of human history is a pretty dismal prospect, if you’re looking to see how rotten we’ve treated each other.  And yet, things are better today than they have ever been, basically.  Perhaps that’s a sign that the end of the world is not imminent.

The swine flu?  It’s just another influenza. The flu kills approximately half a million people worldwide every year.  There is nothing particularly special about this flu, and again, with respect to death from disease, things are better now than they ever have been.  Of course, Jehovah’s Witnesses could probably do a little more to take care of themselves to allay some of their medical worries.

So, with all due respect, I don’t see Mr. Ferris’ point.  These things have always happened and they aren’t happening at any greater rate today than they have in the past.  In fact, in many respects, they are happening at a greatly reduced rate.  The end seems farther away now than it probably did back in the Dark Ages, so if I were a Witness, I wouldn’t worry about it too much.  My advice:  enjoy your lives without scaring yourselves.

But then, religion has always traded on fear, so I don’t have much hope that things will be any different here.  Besides, you guys have other things to worry about, even if you don’t acknowledge it.

Milky Way rise…

You’ve seen sunrises and moonrises, but have you ever seen a Milky Way rise? The Milky Way is the galaxy our solar system resides in, contains at least 200 billion stars, and it’s a pretty magnificent sight if you get to see it in a truly dark sky. Unfortunately, most people live in towns and cities where light pollution drains the sky of dark, rendering the Milky Way invisible, so it’s a real treat to get out to the country to see it once in a while. When we’re looking up at the Milky Way, what we’re seeing is our galaxy from the inside, looking in towards the center. Every individual star you see in the sky is also inside the Milky Way, and those bright bands of light in the Milky Way are clusters of individual stars that are so far away, they blend together as far as our eyes are concerned.

Here is a spectacular time-lapse video of the Milky Way rising in the sky, taken by photographer William Castleman at a Texas star party. According to William:

The time-lapse sequence was taken with the simplest equipment that I brought to the star party. I put the Canon EOS-5D (AA screen modified to record hydrogen alpha at 656 nm) with an EF 15mm f/2.8 lens on a weighted tripod. Exposures were 20 seconds at f/2.8 ISO 1600 followed by 40 second interval. Exposures were controlled by an interval timer shutter release (Canon TC80N3). Power was provided by a Hutech EOS203 12v power adapter run off a 12v deep cycle battery. Large jpg files shot in custom white balance were batch processed in Photoshop (levels, curves, contrast, Noise Ninja noise reduction, resize) and assembled in Quicktime Pro. Editing/assembly was with Sony Vegas Movie Studio 9.

Make sure to click through for the HD version:

Galactic Center of Milky Way Rises over Texas Star Party from William Castleman on Vimeo.

Awesome job, William – more people need to see things like this to understand what we’ve lost with the proliferation of light pollution in our urban and suburban areas. It must have been something else to marvel at this nightly before light pollution was so common. Thanks for the great video – very humbling!

An open letter to Oprah…

Spoken for the truth. Shirley Wu has gained a new reader here, and I suggest you check out what she has to say to Oprah Winfrey in her blog over the fact that Ms. Winfrey has decided to endorse Jenny McCarthy and her anti-vax nonsense.  Thanks for the post, Shirley – here’s hoping she reconsiders!

Acupuncture doesn’t work, although it may help…

acupuncture-beautyWait, what?  How can something that doesn’t work, help?  And if it helps, doesn’t that mean it works?

There is a new study out today (Reuters, Seattle PI) from the Group Health Center for Health Studies that shows acupuncture provides at least some benefit to people with chronic lower back pain.  I’m sure that acupuncture devotees will latch onto this study as meaningful proof that acupuncture works, but they should pause before popping the champagne cork:  the study also demonstrated that it didn’t matter if you used needles or toothpicks, or whether you penetrated or didn’t penetrate the skin.  Although this study didn’t run a test group that received acupuncture using non-acupuncture points (it would have been more thorough if it had, and I wonder why it did not), the results match other studies that have done exactly that, so it’s safe to say that acupuncture works whether you’re receiving “real” acupuncture or not.  The mere act of poking someone in the back with something sharp (maybe not even that; other studies have shown that fingertips will do) and telling them they were being treated with acupuncture was good enough to realize the same amount of benefit across the board.  The conclusion of the study was this:

Although acupuncture was found effective for chronic low back pain, tailoring needling sites to each patient and penetration of the skin appear to be unimportant in eliciting therapeutic benefits. These findings raise questions about acupuncture’s purported mechanisms of action. It remains unclear whether acupuncture or our simulated method of acupuncture provide physiologically important stimulation or represent placebo or nonspecific effects.

As the conclusion suggests, what we’re probably seeing here is the famed placebo effect at work – if someone genuinely believes that a sham treatment will work, sometimes it does.  Whatever the real reason, the study makes it clear that the mechanism of action – why does acupuncture work? – remains a mystery.  Traditional Chinese medicine claims that acupuncture releases qi energy, but such energy has never actually been observed and is not scientifically recognized.

So, even if acupuncture is chiefly a matter of belief, what’s the harm if it provides relief?  It may be fair to say that, for some, acupuncture helps.  But it most likely doesn’t “work”, meaning that there is no mechanism by which acupuncture itself treats anything.  The suggestion that it will treat something and the strong beliefs of many of its patients probably contributes greatly to its anecdotal success, but it is important to note that the placebo effect is not a miracle worker.  It won’t make a tumor go away just because a patient believes it will.  And this is where the danger lies – people tend to attribute far too much power to the placebo effect, thinking that it doesn’t matter if the treatment works or not as long as it helps.  If you merely feel pain, yes, a placebo treatment may help, probably because a great deal of pain is in the mind and a matter of perspective and attitude.  But if you have a condition such as cancer or a viral infection or what have you, the placebo effect isn’t going to do anything, and believing otherwise is likely to cause harm.  Tumors don’t have beliefs and are not affected by placebos.

The whole study can be found here. It’s pretty accessible to the layman and well worth a read, especially the discussion at the end.

Science is fun…

Honestly, if this was how science was taught in every classroom, we’d have a nation of scientific geniuses and a lot of great comedians.

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