Monday, October 31, 2005

Mandatory Halloween post

WARNING: The last couple of pictures may or may not be work-safe, depending upon how uptight your place of work is. (Obviously, however, this first one is perfectly unobjectionable, unless you somehow think that dogs in ghost costumes are somehow offensive.)

Happy Halloween, everyone. After the previous, more serious, Halloween post, I thought it'd be a good time for some lighter fare, some Trick or Treat...

First off, Fido has to get into the spirit of things:

Next, as part of the theme of the day, I thought I'd include some examples of Halloween costumes gone desperately wrong. For us humans, we begin with a rather interesting superhero:

Hmmm. I wonder if that's Greenwich Village. Could be. It would make sense.

Next up, we have a common Halloween costume that is totally wrong for this guy:

The King must be rolling over in his grave. The costume is also disturbingly too tight in the crotch.

Now we have one that may not be entirely work-safe, but I think that it's sufficiently over the top that it probably won't offend anyone except the very easily offended. (I think.) And, of course, men in drag have been a source of comedy at least since the days of the ancient Greeks, and hairy men playing retired Hooters girls? Comic gold!

And, finally, the most disturbing Halloween costume I have ever seen...

Hat tip to my wife, and her friends who sent her some of these pictures.

I think.

A truly offensive use of Halloween

Having been blogging for nearly a year now, one thing that's surprised me is the relative paucity of blogs relating to Holocaust denial. There are certainly many websites out there that push Holocaust denial, including CODOH, The Holocaust Historiography Project, Arthur Butz's website, The Institute for Historical Review, Carlos Porter's site, Michael A. Hoffman II's Campaign for Radical Truth in History, the Zundelsite, David Irving's site, and Fritz Berg's particularly odious Nazi Gassings site, among others. (Care should be taken before visiting some of these sites if you have a weak stomach, given that many of these sites mix anti-Semitism and white nationalist beliefs freely with their Holocaust denial, as expected. If you're at work and your company has filtering software installed, they are also likely to trigger the filters.)

But there were no Holocaust denial blogs, at least not as far as I could find--until now.

I became aware of my first actual Holocaust denial blog a few weeks ago. I had debated whether or not to write about it, mainly because I was reluctant to do anything that might raise its profile or increase its Technorati ranking by linking to it, but I think you'll see part of the reason why I decided to write about it and, in particular, why on Halloween. The blog in question is Bradley R. Smith's My Life as a Holocaust Revisionist and his other blog The Holocaust Story. The former is meant to be a more "personal" blog, while the latter is meant to discuss "serious news stories," whatever that means coming from Holocaust deniers. Smith happens to be the director of CODOH (the ironically named "Committee for the Open Debate of the Holocaust"), one of the principle purveyors of Holocaust denial literature in the U.S.

Here is the post that caught my eye:
Announcing the 2nd Annual David McCalden Most Macabre Halloween Holocaust Tale Challenge. The winner gets a $200 cash prize.

Pits of boiling human fat? Human soap? Giant "death by steaming" pressure cookers? Fountains of blood squirting from the earth?

Help us find new Holocaust stories you find macabre and ridiculous.
Included was a link to the contest page:
The winner will receive a $200 cash prize; second place will receive a $50 cash prize. Entries are to be judged on four factors:
  1. Originality (search our site before entering),
  2. The macabre nature of the tale,
  3. Citation of the source(s) where the tale or claim has appeared, and
  4. The use of the tale in official Holocaust histories. (Receive added points if your submission was used in a court of law.)
The contest deadline is Saturday, October 30, 2005. You may enter as many times as you wish, but there will be only one winning entry per person. Each contest entry is subject to verification. The winners will be announced on Sunday, October 31, 2005 (Halloween).

The prize is in honor of skeptic and founder of the Institute for Historical Review, David McCalden. All submissions become the property of the Holocaust Historiography Project, and may be published on this website.

Let's make David proud!
As it turns out, David McCalden was the founder of the Institute for Historical Review and noted for essays such as The Amazing, Rapidly Shrinking "Holocaust." He was also a purveyor of bogus "challenges," famously offering $50,000 for "proof" of the existence of Nazi homicidal gas chambers. A Holocaust survivor by the name of Mel Mermelstein accepted the challenge and the IHR reneged on the offer. Mermelstein went to court and won a $90,000 settlement, as the court concluded that he had met the terms of the challenge.

Apparently, making fun of stories from the Holocaust would apparently have made McCalden proud (he's been dead 15 years). McCalden, like many Holocaust deniers, liked to paint himself as a "skeptic," but in reality he was selective about his skepticism. Holocaust deniers love to search for dubious survivor stories to debunk. That such stories exist is not surprising, given the magnitude of the Holocaust, the number of people involved, and the trauma many of the survivors lived through. Given human nature, one would expect that some fraction of eyewitness testimony would be questionable or false. Given human nature, one also would expect that some survivors would have incomplete memories; that some might exaggerate some stories for attention or for whatever other reason; or that some would be mistaken about some events that occurred at the camps. Deniers love to debunk a few dubious witness' stories with great gusto and flourish, by implication claiming that a few examples of false or erroneous "eyewitness testimony" somehow "prove" that the Holocaust didn't happen or that it was of a much smaller magnitude than the commonly accepted history. Of course, they happily ignore the bulk of the overwhelming evidence, including (but not limited to) eyewitness testimony, the testimony and writings of the Nazis themselves, physical evidence, etc., showing that the Nazis did indeed conceive and impliment a genocidal plan to exterminate European Jewry and others they considered racial "undesirables."

Holocaust deniers also like to make a lot of hay over misconceptions that lay people might have about various specific aspects of the Holocaust and like to attack such misunderstandings with similar gusto, like cranks attacking a straw man. Bradley Smith also got my attention doing this, as he apparently noticed the same photoessay about Dachau by Pundit Guy that I mentioned a couple of weeks ago. He makes a great point of attacking PunditGuy's photos of the gas chambers there:
First, the USHMM does leave visitors with the impression that there was a Nazi gas chamber at Dachau. For what it's worth, they appear to be trying to square the circle on this issue. Its website states: There is no credible evidence that the gas chamber in Barrack X was used to murder human beings. If they were more forthright, it would of course state that there is no credible evidince that there was a Nazi gas chamber at Dachau, as virtually no serious historian now maintains that there was such a construct at Dachau.

Second, PunditGuy has become so steeped in Holocaust "knowledge" from the media's daily pounding of the Holocaust drum that he no longer knows why he knows what he thinks he knows about the Holocaust, and turning to the high priests of the Holocaust myth is not the way to get straight information.

Ironically, this type of muddled thinking seems worse among the "elite" such as PunditGuy (my dictionary defines "pundit" as "an expert in a particular subject or field who is frequently called on to give opinions about it to the public"). If you ask the average person about Dachau or the Holocaust, you get pretty vague answers. Most persons just don't care. But self-appointed experts -- hey, they've seen Schindler's List! -- cling to Holocaust falsehoods as if they were life itself.
A word of explanation is in order here. Dachau was the oldest Nazi concentration camp, established mere weeks after Hitler became Chancellor. Unlike Treblinka, Belzec, or Sobibor, Dachau was not a death camp, although many were indeed killed there. Of course, Smith is incorrect about the existence of gas chambers at Dachau. There were indeed gas chambers designed for delousing clothing, but there were Harry Mazal has written a long essay in which he shows convincingly that there was indeed at least one gas chamber designed to kill humans, but that it is not clear whether it was ever actually used for that purpose. Smith tries to make a great to-do over whether or not Pundit Guy is sufficiently conversant in Holocaust history that he is aware of the debate over whether the gas chamber at Dachau was ever used to kill people in an effort to suggest some sort of "conspiracy" or propaganda. He does this even while pointing out that no less an entity dedicated to teaching the public about the Holocaust than the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum states flat out on its website that there is no credible evidence that the gas chambers were ever used to kill Jews!

Holocaust deniers use such obfuscations and rhetorical tricks because they don't have the evidence on their side. And, when their obfuscations won't fly, they reveal their true stripes, either by letting their anti-Semitism show or by using crude and tasteless mockery of the dead such as the "Halloween Holocaust tale challenge" Smith seems so pleased with himself about. No wonder Smith doesn't allow comments on his blog.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Spidey, say it ain't so!

Can it be?

Could Spidey have joined the dark side? Can he really be aligned with the forces of "intelligent design"?

Say it ain't so!

Maybe he needs to face The Evolver!

(Via RangelMD and on images for larger versions)

Beyond giant microbes: How about the digestive system?

A couple of days ago, I mentioned a company that sells giant plush microbes. But that's not the only medical-related fluffiness you can get.

How about a knitted digestive tract, anyone?

I think it's particularly hilarious that the person labeling the picture felt compelled to label the finger pointing to the digestive tract...

(Via Boing Boing and Kevin, M.D.)

No Trek fan could have seen this coming...


The only question I have is: Why did George Takei wait so long to come out, given that he's 68 and has been with his partner for 18 years? Yes, there's still a lot of homophobia in this country, but the situation has gotten arguably much better than it was even a decade ago.

Here's a creepy Halloween story

In Delaware, I find a suitably macabre story for this Halloween season. An unfortunate 42-year-old woman committed suicide by hanging from a tree in full view of a moderately busy road. However, because of the upcoming holiday, no one paid any attention for at least three hours, because they thought her body was a Halloween decoration:
The 42-year-old woman used rope to hang herself across the street from some homes on a moderately busy road late Tuesday or early Wednesday, state police said.

The body, suspended about 15 feet above the ground, could be easily seen from passing vehicles.

State police spokesman Cpl. Jeff Oldham and neighbors said people noticed the body at breakfast time Wednesday but dismissed it as a holiday prank. Authorities were called to the scene more than three hours later.

"They thought it was a Halloween decoration," Fay Glanden, wife of Mayor William Glanden, told The (Wilmington) News Journal.

Egads, they must have some incredibly realistic-looking Halloween decorations in Frederica for such a mistake to make any sense. At least they figured it out before the corpse started to stink...

Hat tip to my sister for this one. (Yes, you can blame it on her...)

Orac the "humanist"?

You fit in with:

Your ideals mostly resemble that of a Humanist. Although you do not have a lot of faith, you are devoted to making this world better, in the short time that you have to live. Humanists do not generally believe in an afterlife, and therefore, are committed to making the world a better place for themselves and future generations.

20% scientific.
80% reason-oriented.

Take this quiz at

Orac would displeased. As the greatest computer the galaxy has ever known, being called "humanist" would be guaranteed to get on his bad side.

And what's with the "20%" science? I'm a friggin' scientist, fer cryin' out loud! Science and taking care of patients are how I make my living.

I have to conclude that this is a rather silly and frivolous test. But, because so many others seemed to be taking it, once again I couldn't resist...

Friday, October 28, 2005

Blogfather and blogchildren

A few days ago, The Commissar started making a family tree of the blogosphere, asking:

Bloggers, please leave a comment noting:
  1. Your blogfather, or blogmother, as the case may be. Just one please - the one blog that, more than any other, inspired you to start blogging. Please don’t name Instapundit, unless you are on his blogchildren list. Usenet was my blogfather. My blog was a natural--excuse the term--evolution from my activities on alt.revisionism and on Usenet. I cannot name just one blog that, more than any other, inspired me to start blogging, although it was not long after I discovered the medical and science blogosphere that I decided I had to give it a try.
  2. Don’t email me to tell me that you have no blogfather/mother. If that’s your view, that’s fine. But what I’m doing here is tracking intellectual heritage, or just strong influences. If the idea of blogging came to you fully-formed and no other blogger influenced you, I do not object. But I’m tracking lineages here. Sorry; I guess I just won't e-mail you then. However, strong influences early in my blogging included CodeBlueBlog (that is, before it went off the deep end with the Terri Schiavo case, anyway); Pharyngula (with regard to science and "intelligent design" creationism); the Cheerful Oncologist (patient stories, which I don't do nearly as much as I used to); The Millenium Project (debunking of quackery and pseudoscience); and The Examining Room of Dr. Charles (patient stories again). Of course, as you can see by browsing the early archives, I rapidly developed my own inimitable voice and finally gained blogosphere fame (if not fortune) in June after this infamous post. The reason it took such a short period of time is because I had already honed my voice on Usenet for 7-8 years before I started blogging.
  3. Include your blog-birth-month, the month that you started blogging, if you can. December 11, 2004 at 3:06 PM EST, although my first substantive post was three hours later.
  4. Identify your blog as Left, Right, or Other. Definitely Other, although leaning a bit right.
  5. If you are reasonably certain that you have spawned any blog-children, mention them, too. I have no idea if I have spawned. However, now that I'm approaching my first anniversary, that means that the blog's rapidly approaching middle age; so I suppose it's possible. So, if anyone considers himself or herself one of my blogchildren, please let me know with an e-mail or a comment here.
This is as good a time as any to mention that it is very likely that sometime in the next month or two I will be changing blogging platforms. Those who have been around a while realize that I've said this intermittently over the last several months but have yet to actually do it. The main things holding me back are (1) laziness; (2) sheer inertia; and (3) the fact that I much prefer dedicating my limited blogging time to writing new content for this site rather than fiddling with the template (something that's probably painfully obvious from my continued use of this lame generic Blogger template and the fact that I haven't updated my "Essential Orac" sidebar in at least two months). #3 is mainly because I'm almost HTML illiterate. However, Blogger's limitations are finally starting to grate on me enough that they may finally overcome all these impediments, and I tend to look at my upcoming blog anniversary as a deadline of sorts to get off my behind and make some major changes around here, even if it means taking some days off here and there from writing fresh material over the next month and a half.

If I do make such a major change, though, I want to do it right. The theme for any future new template for this blog obviously has to be Blakes 7-inspired, given the 'nym I choose to use. Aside from that, any feedback is, as always (well, usually anyway, depending upon the level of hostility) appreciated.

"Filling up the darkest places"

Via Ahistoricality, I've come across a rather disturbing story:
A poem which praises the murder of Jews by the Nazis has been included in a book of children’s poetry to be distributed amongst schools in the UK.

The publication, entitled Great Minds, features the work of school children aged 11 to 18 who won a nationwide literary competition.

But one poem has generated outrage amongst Jewish groups, politicians and Holocaust charities for its anti-Semitic content.

The entry by the 14-year-old Gideon Taylor is apparently written from the viewpoint of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler.

It includes the lines "Jews are here, Jews are there, Jews are almost everywhere, filling up the darkest places, evil looks upon their faces."

Another part reads: "Make them take many paces for being one of the worst races, on their way to a gas chamber, where they will sleep in their manger… I'll be happy Jews have died."
The poem was one of the winners of a writing competition known as Great Minds run through the Young Writers website, with the authors and schools of winning entries awarded cash prizes. The editor defended the selection thusly:
Young Writers editor Steve Twelvetree, who also edited the book, said the poem was included as it illustrated how the writer was able to empathise with the infamous Nazi Fuehrer.

Twelvetree told the Telegraph: "From Gideon's poem and my knowledge of the National Curriculum Key Stage 3 his poem shows a good use of technical writing and he has written his poem from the perspective of Adolf Hitler.”

The editor continued: "Key Stage 3 history requires pupils to show knowledge and understanding of events and places - to show historical interpretation and to explain significance of events, people and places, all of which World War II and the Holocaust is part of.

"The poem clearly states 'I am Adolf Hitler' and it recounts a historical fact, something Young Writers and Forward Press are not willing to censor."
I'm afraid the editor is erecting a bit of a straw man here. No one is asking him to "censor" anything. They are, however, questioning Forward Press's judgment in including such an inflammatory poem in a book of creative writing by children that will be distributed to schools. Publishers make editorial decisions about what is appropriate to include in textbooks all the time and often leave out material that is controversial. (Clearly, the publisher realized that this would cause controversy, as this particular poem was the only piece of writing for which the school was not listed, although the student's name was included.) What made them decide in this particular case that including something that would clearly anger a lot of people?

I'm a bit of two minds on this one and not quite as disapproving as Ahistoricality. On the one hand, I can sort of see the value of an exercise in which a student writes a poem from Hitler's perspective, if perhaps it was a high school junior or senior level or college level class at least. For such young students, however, it might run the risk of having the student empathize a little too much with Hitler's point of view. It could work, however. A far better exercise to try to examine Hitler's motivation would be to require the reading of Ron Rosenbaum's Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil, which looks at various interpretations of Hitler's motivations or how he became so evil, ranging from his truly believing that he was doing good, serving his people, and doing Europe a great favor by ridding it of Jews to a cynical schemer whose anti-Semitism was more opportunistic. (I have a hard time believing the latter, though. Only a true believer would divert troops and resources to keep the trains to Auschwitz running on time and the gas chambers operating, instead of using all those resources to try to stop the advancing Red Army.) The book also examines (and largely debunks) other proposed explanations, such as the claim that Hitler had Jewish ancestry that he was ashamed of (making him, I guess, the ultimate "self-hating Jew") and the "one ball" theory. It provides a fascinating look at what might have been Hitler's motivations and, in doing so, provides an equally fascinating portrait of how historians' and people's views of Hitler's motivations and how they look at Hitler have changed over the decades.

On the other hand, I really can't see including the results of such an exercise in a book of children's poetry to be distributed to schools, and the publisher deserves a lot of the heat it is getting. As Ahistoricality pointed out, the poem included seems to be "doggerel displaying the shallowest genocidal paranoia." However, even so, I do not think the poem should be censored, as at least one of the publisher's critics seems to be arguing that it should, stating: "It's an incitement to racial hatred." In many European countries, including the U.K., "incitements to racial hatred" are illegal, subject to penalties, which implies that the person quoted wants the book censored.

Personally, I consider such censorship of alleged "hate speech" to be misguided. After all, do you want the government deciding what is and is not "hate speech"? That's yet another reason that I'm glad that we have the First Amendment to make such misguided tendencies to censor offensive speech far more difficult.

How to succeed at quackery, part 2

Prometheus has, after a long delay, finally posted part 2 of his advice for budding quacks everywhere. In this case, he explains how to exploit your niche. For me as a physician, perhaps the most relevant piece of advice is here, given how HMOs have taken financial control of most medical practices:
Whatever you do, do not make the mistake that many chiropractors are making - do not try to get your services covered by insurance plans. This is the kiss of death for "alternative" practitioners. Although getting covered by health insurance plans may yield a better cash flow for the marginal "alternative" practitioner, it is a disaster in the long run.

Just look what insurance coverage did to the "real" doctors . The ones who were getting paid in chickens (when they got paid at all) did better, but the profession as a whole ended up saddled with endless paperwork and red tape. Eventually, the insurance companies ended up telling the doctors how much they would get paid for everything they did. Makes getting paid in chickens and corn look good by comparison.

Bottom line: even if you could do it - stay away from insurance companies (this includes the biggest insurer of them all - the Government). You don't need that kind of scrutiny and you surely can do without the paperwork. After all, if you wanted to fill out forms, you would have become an accountant.

If any of your "clients" ask why you don't accept insurance, there are a number of good answers you can give:

[1] "The insurance companies are a part of the conspiracy to keep people sick - I'm trying to keep people well."

[2] "My therapies are too much on the cutting edge - insurance companies still call them 'experimental'"

[3] "Insurance company policies are too regimented - I treat my patients as individuals."

Or you can think up something that fits your particular style of business.
Indeed. Insurance companies, whether you agree with them on the specific criteria they choose to evaluate what they will pay for or not, do tend to have this nasty (for quacks, anyway) tendency to require some evidence of efficacy before they will pay for a treatment, all from a desire to minimize cost and maximize profits. On the other hand, the chiropracters' desire may not be that misguided for two reasons. First, if enough patients want it, insurance companies will often pay for a treatment, even if evidence from well-designed clinical trials for its efficacy is lacking, such as vertebroplasty or, back in the 1990's, bone marrow transplantation for more advanced breast cancer. Insurance companies will sometimes do this to prevent the loss of subscribers unhappy that they won't pay for such treatments. Second, having insurance companies reimburse you for services cloaks you with the mantle of "respectability," of being part of mainstream medicine. This is invaluable, even if it does bring with it the headaches of paperwork, the insurance company dictating how much it will pay for what procedure, etc.

Finally, of course, Prometheus insists that you emphasize these three points:
[1] All the doctors they have seen in the past were incompetent (they may have already told you this) [Orac's note: I'm not sure I like this one...]

[2] You know exactly what is wrong with them - and it's not due to anything they did, like smoking or overeating. Blaming the government or large multinational corporations can be useful at this juncture. [Orac's note: This one is absolutely key. Quacks have to convince their marks that they are somehow "poisoned" and that it is not their fault. Blaming mercury in vaccines or from amalgams is a good example of this ploy. Using various "liver flushes" and enemas are other examples of treatments based on ridding the body of undefined "toxins."]

[3] You are the only person (or one of a select few) who can cure them (or at least return them to health and the need for a life-long maintenance program).
Prometheus' article is well worth checking out.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

The Twentieth Meeting of the Skeptics Circle

The Twentieth Meeting of the Skeptics' Circle has been posted at The Uncredible Hallq. Take a break from the usual credulity of the blogosphere to appreciate bloggers who are trying to apply critical thinking and science to claims that desperately cry out for such treatment. Chris has done a fine job of lining up a variety of skeptical professors to teach at the College of Skepticism, all for your edification and education. Enjoy.

Next up on November 10 is Pooflingers Anonymous, another up-and-coming skeptical blog. I just hope that Matt has recovered from the epic task he took upon himself and recently completed. The task? Sitting through and then debunking 12--count 'em, 12!--Kent Hovind videotapes about evolution, a task he calls The Hovind Files: Lying for Jesus. Such concentrated exposure to such an enormous amount of antiscientific creationist twaddle can tax even the most dedicated skeptic. On the other hand, Matt sure made a name for himself.

I have to give Matt a lot of credit, though. Having tried to listen to the InfidelGuy's interview with Kent Hovind (iTunes required), I realize just how big a bullet Matt took for the team, skeptically speaking. That was a .44 Magnum slug! I couldn't get through more than about 15 minutes of Hovind's blathering and asking if you "came from a rock" or "came from a monkey" before I couldn't stand it anymore and had to turn it off in order to preserve what little remains of my sanity. I could feel my neurons dying after just a brief exposure. Personally, if I'm going to kill off any of the neurons in my brain, I'd rather do it in a pleasurable fashion, perhaps by drinking some good beer, rather than listening to someone like Hovind. Matt must be made of sterner (or crazier) stuff.

Finally, as always, I'm looking for hosts. If you think you'd like to host a Skeptics' Circle, drop me a line at The schedule and guidelines are here and here.

Give the gift of microbes!

Sorry, but I didn't have time to write anything that substantive last night (no smart-ass comments about whether anything I ever write qualifies as "substantive"). Maybe Friday. There's something Halloween-related that I've been meaning to write about, and time's running out. In the meantime, I did find something rather amusing.

It's way too early to be thinking of Christmas. Heck, it's not even Halloween yet. Nonetheless, I may have found the perfect gift for that tough-to-buy-for person.

GIANT microbes! Says the company:

We make stuffed animals that look like tiny microbes - only a million times actual size!

Indeed they do, and they're pretty cool. All the nasty suspects are here.

Syphilis? Check. Rhinovirus (the common cold)? Check. Plague? Check. Epstein-Barr virus? Check. E. coli? Check. (Hmmm. E. coli looks a bit like the Flying Spaghetti Monster.)

I almost think I might want one...

The (other) Sox are champions

As hard as it is to believe, after 88 years, the White Sox are champions again! Too bad I'm not still in Chicago; the city must be going nuts.

What's next? Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies? Rivers and seas boiling? Forty years of darkness? Earthquakes, volcanoes? The dead rising from the grave? Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together - mass hysteria?

No, those things would only happen if the Cubs ever win.

I keep saying it: 2008. That's the Cubs' year. They have to suffer at least a century of futility. With only three years to go, why not go for it?

In the meantime, next year is reserved for the Indians. After all, they did give the Sox a scare during the last couple of months of the season, cutting their lead in the AL Central from 15 games to 1½ games.

Entrance into the hall of science

Via the Sarkar Lab Weblog:

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Just what your water needs: More electrons!

As a skeptic, sometimes I'm just left shaking my head and muttering about some things that I come across. I sometimes wonder why I bother. Sometimes, I come across a scam that shows such an utter contempt for people's intelligence that it completely amazes me that anyone falls for it.

But fall for it they do.

A perfect example of this is something that a reader named Matt e-mailed me a while ago about a man named John Ellis. I had never heard of this guy before, but when I visited John Ellis' website, where he was selling something he calls the Crystal Clear Electron Water/Air Machine, it was like entering an alternate dimension, where the regular rules about logic, science, medicine, and physical lawas don't apply (at least not to his claims). You'll see why when you see the very first claim that greets a reader upon hitting his website:
If you change the properties, amazing things will happen!

Even as a senior citizen, I am stronger now than when I ranked #1 in the world in the discus because of my patented discovery!

What, pray tell, is responsible for this old geezer's fantastic health? Glad you asked! Just click on the button:
Worldwide patents show John Ellis' home WATER MACHINE is the first to permanently change water properties (they can be identified 100 years from now) with results that medical doctors can verify...

Wow, I think. What "can be identified 100 years from now"? I'm guessing he means water properties, but it's not always entirely clear. Then, particularly relevant to my specialty, Ellis makes this claim:
Fifty years ago the hydrogen bond angle in water was 108° and you rarely heard of anyone with cancer. Today, it's only 104° and, as a result, cancer is an epidemic!! By using our machine you can increase the bond angle to 114° and, unlike any other water, doctors can see an immediate change in the red blood cells under a microscope! It's truly amazing!!
Odd that they never taught me this back when I was a chemistry major or when I was taking graduate level biochemistry courses. Also odd that they never taught me in medical school that you "rarely heard of cancer" 50 years ago. One would think that such an important observation of a change in the basic chemical structure of such an important molecule as water (specifically, that the bond angle of water used to be 108° but is now only 104.5°) would be an area of intense research interest among chemists. One would also think that scientists would be intensely interested if it somehow had something to do with the etiology of cancer. Never mind that Ellis never explains what on earth the bond angle of water would have to do with cancer. And, of course, Ellis never demonstrates that you can increase the bond angle to 114°, nor does he explain why one would even want to do so. I guess you just have to enter Ellis's reality warp field to understand. Either that, or perhaps Evil Conventional Medicine™ and Big Pharma™ have, as usual, conspired to cover it up. (As an aside, if you want to know the real structure of water, in fact, more about water and its bond lengths and angles than most people would ever care to know, you can check here.)

But, blazing pathfinder that he is, eager to claim the mantle of Galileo, changing the bond angle of water isn't enough for Ellis. He claims that he "adds electrons to water." Why? Well, here's his explanation:
Ordinary distilled is the worst because KEEPING WATER AT THE BOILING POINT FOR HOURS DRIVES OFF ELECTRONS NEEDED TO LIVE... it’s biologically dead, nothing will grow, fish die... it’s NOT “distilled like in nature” and yet people drink this water?? To get around the boiling problem, we boil for ONLY SECONDS (expand) and then cool about 80 degrees (contract), repeating several times a minute, GAINING ENERGY WHILE DUPLICATING NATURE’S PROCESS!!
ANY LAB will tell you, many other health promoting activities can't work without the ELECTRONS found in CHARGED WATER because OXYGEN levels have dropped to as low as 8%, in today's water molecules, they are SMALLER and CAN'T HOLD the additional donor ELECTRONS (from OXYGEN) needed to make them work!! As a result, VIRUSES and BACTERIA are mutating out of control... CAUSING almost ANY problem you can name!
Even better, on the very same page, he includes a picture, with the caption: "The above picture is a close up view of one ice cube that grew up 2 1/2 inches out of the ice tray. This is proof that electrons are present."


That's all very nice (if a pile of B.S.), but what does this have to do with all the supposed health benefits Ellis touts for water treated with his machine?


Ellis brags on his website about having actual U.S. Patents on his machine. He even lists the numbers, 4,612,090 ("Water degasification and distillation apparatus"), 5,203,970 ("Method for water degasification and distillation"), and 6,409,888 ("Method and apparatus for water degasification and distillation"). So I looked the patents up, and you can too just by clicking on the handy links I provided. Basically, his device appears to be a water purification and distillation unit. Not surprisingly, nowhere in the patent applications does he claim that his device "adds electrons" to water or that it changes the bond angle of water. If Ellis had made such claims, the stodgy investigators at the Patent Office would surely have expected him to provide some actual scientific evidence that his device does indeed do what he claims it does before granting a U. S. Patent. Not surprisingly, Ellis made no such claims in his application. Sadly, all the device appears to do is to produce distilled water. That's it. Certainly Ellis provides no evidence that his device in his applications (or on his website) in any way permanently changes the structure of water. (Perhaps any engineers out there who have more knowledge than me can comment about whether Ellis' machine is even a decent water purifier.) Ellis does, predictably, provide a bunch of testimonials, however.

A retired chemist named Stephen Lower has analyzed Ellis' claims in detail. Not surprisingly, he has concluded that Ellis is pushing pseudoscientific nonsense. (He also has a very nice website devoted to debunking water cluster quackery and--as he puts it--"aquascams.") But even more damning still, I think, is the condemnation Ellis has received on that most credulous of credulous altie sites (with the possible exception of, where skepticism about alternative medicine is usually ruthlessly censored, CureZone, where he has been lambasted as a fraud and the messages haven't been censored, as criticisms of alternative medicine usually are:
John Ellis has company called Crystal Clear; they claim to make a water machine that produces energized distilled water. Its $1700 bucks. Beware of this product. No support for the product after you plunk down your money. He is a fast talker and great at selling his $1700 machine. It DOES NOT work!!! He is an asshole when you try and explain your situation and ask for your money back. He had all the time in the world to sit on the phone and sell it to us, but was too busy to settle our problem and hung up on us. The machine may make distilled water, but if you are going to get it to put in your pool or spa, don't bother. Your pool and spa will turn green. They told us we would NEVER have to put chemicals in either ever again. This turned out to be a total lie, and we got many different stories each time we called for assistance.
Of course, this person and most of the others piling on don't question the central premise behind Ellis' machine, that "energizing" water with electrons can somehow suddenly endow it with all sorts of beneficial abilities to improve health when that "energized water" is consumed. (Perhaps that's why the message wasn't censored; it wasn't questioning the health benefits of "energized" water, only whether Ellis' machine could make such water.) They're merely upset that Ellis' machine doesn't seem to do anything other than distill and purify water and that the water didn't somehow become magically resistant to algae. Well, what did they expect? That's all the patents say the device can do!

I guess what most irritates me about people like John Ellis is how low an opinion of the intelligence of the consumer they appear to have, to use such transparently pseudoscientific rubbish to sell an overpriced water purification machine. On the other hand, given the gullibility of some of his customers, it's not too hard to understand why he might have developed such contempt for them:
I beg to differ!! I got very good results from my living water machine. I talked to John Ellis about the theory behind his machine and found him engaging and informative. He's out to make a buck like most people, but he does seem to have a big part of the truth in his process that inspired me to investigate further and learn more. Although I only spoke to him over the phone, I don't feel as though he deserves the criticism leveled against him in this forum.
No wonder people like Ellis continue to make lots of money selling these sorts of devices based on ridiculously obvious pseudoscientific claims. People like "dr h2o" above guarantee it.

The horror, the horror!

The Onion's been on a roll lately, with its revelation about how unprepared Pittsburgh is for a zombie attack, and the Department of Homeland Security's plan for Halloween. This time, it sums up perfectly the attitude among too many, particularly advocates of "intelligent design."


Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The history of polio, told as a cartoon

Here's a history of polio, Polio: A Virus's Struggle, that is both informative and entertaining...

(Via Boing Boing)

Time for the Sox to finish the Astros off...

In an exciting game Sunday night, the White Sox pulled out their second victory over the Astros, 7-6. The whole town has caught White Sox fever (well, except for the Cubs fans). Indeed, even the famous Picasso statue at the Daley Center has gotten into the act.

Tonight the series resumes in Houston. Although I would have liked it better if the Detroit Tigers or the Cleveland Indians had made it this far, having lived in Chicago in the late 1990's, I can't help but root for the Sox to take it all this year. Not having grown up in Chicago, when I lived there, I never felt the need to take sides in the Cubs/Sox rivalry. I can therefore root for both, although I must admit to a tendency to have leaned towards the Cubs more (that was probably because I lived only two "el" stops south of Wrigley Field on the Red Line). It also probably didn't help that I had just moved from Cleveland after having lived there for 8 years and was having trouble moving my allegiance from the Tribe.

In any case, I'll be watching tonight, assuming I get home in time...

Speaking of the hapless Cubbies, they need to be next up, although I think it would be most appropriate if they waited until 2008 to take the World Series. Think of it: A century of futility broken by triumph!

This is reassuring

As a Battlestar Galactica addict, I had to take this quiz:

You scored as Capt. Lee Adama (Apollo). You have spent your life trying to life up to and impress your Dad, shame he never seemed to notice. You are a stickler for the rules. But in matters of loyalty and honour you know when they have to be broken.

Capt. Lee Adama (Apollo)


Dr Gaius Baltar


CPO Galen Tyrol


President Laura Roslin


Lt. Kara Thrace (Starbuck)


Commander William Adama


Tom Zarek


Col. Saul Tigh


Number 6


Lt. Sharon Valerii (Boomer)


What New Battlestar Galactica character are you?
created with

Funny, I thought I might be Gaius Baltar, but, then, I guess I don't have tall, supermodel-quality blonde Cylons popping into my consciousness when it's most inconvenient. It's probably better this way. Lee may be a bit dull and nowhere near as brilliant as Baltar, but at least he's a stand-up kind of a guy, rather than a completely amoral, schemer who can't be trusted.

Whom to sue?

Heh. (I know, I'm stealing blatantly from Instapundit, but, then, don't many bloggers at one time or another?)

Now that the MMR has been cleared of having anything to do with causing autism, Nick Cohen is wondering whom he can sue (scroll to the last section) for the extra expense all those parents took to take individual vaccinations, rather than the combined MMR:
Last week's news that the MMR vaccine has nothing to do with autism is testing my self-restraint.

Ever since Andrew Wakefield published his Lancet paper in 1998, parents have been in a dreadful position. Even those of us who guessed that a large section of the supposedly adult population of the country was in the grip of a raving panic, couldn't help asking: what if Wakefield is right?

On the remote chance that he was, we paid for courses of single jabs - at £140-a-go in my case. Now it turns out the Department of Health was telling the truth all along, I'm wondering who I can sue to get my money back.

Obviously, there's Wakefield, but I doubt if he could afford to meet the damages from a class action on behalf of hundreds of thousands of parents.

The editor of the Lancet is a more tempting target. Wakefield's original research was based on a sample of just 12 children, which was too small to be meaningful, as the Lancet ought to have known. Medical journals are not the richest of institutions, however, and it would probably take only a couple of thousand single jab bills to close the Lancet down.

By contrast, the Daily Mail and Private Eye, which fed the passing frenzy with all kinds of mumbo jumbo, are loaded. I had a very pleasant lunch at the Eye recently, so I'd say we're quits. That is no reason why you shouldn't copy your bills to Ian Hislop, its editor, or Paul Dacre, the editor of the Mail, and demand prompt payment or a free lunch of your own.

I think I'll sue Channel 5 which in 2003 showed one of the most shamelessly propagandistic dramas to appear on British television. Hear the Silence took it as read that MMR caused autism and that Big Government and Big Pharma were conspiring to hide the truth.
I wonder if anyone will be able to sue RFK, Jr. Boyd Haley, or the Geiers when (as is most likely) epidemiological evidence finally conclusively shows that thimerosol in infant vaccines doesn't cause autism either. After all, the Geiers make a lot of their money representing parents in front of the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Board or wanting to sue vaccine manufacturers. Turnabout would be fair play. Unfortunately, it would probably be too difficult to be practical to demonstrate specific damages for generating a general anti-vaccination hysteria based on dubious science and selective data mining.

Grand Rounds, Vol. 2, No. 5

Grand Rounds, Vol. 2, No. 5 has been posted at Hospital Impact.

Monday, October 24, 2005

RINO Sightings

This week's RINO Sightings has been posted for your edification.

"Alternative" nutrition takes the life of a baby

I don't have a problem with vegans, although I tend to view veganism as more cultish than anything else. Certainly it's possible for an adult to remain reasonably healthy on a strictly vegan diet, but it's difficult (and, for me, it would be quite unsatisfying). Other than for strictly religious or moral reasons, I could never understand why vegans will not eat dairy products, which will more easily supply certain needed proteins and fats, or even eggs, which, because they are unfertilized, are not the same as killing animals for food. However, live and let live, I usually say. The only people harmed or helped by vegan diets are those who follow them. Given that, such diets are usually personal choices and none of my business. (If only vegans considered my choice to include meats and seafood in my diet in similar terms.)

My understanding and tolerance end, however, when such diets are imposed on children, whose nutritional needs are different from those of adults. For these and other personal reasons (people who know me will know what those reasons are), stories like this just burn me up. It tells the tale of Woyah Andressohn, a 6-month old who died of starvation because the parents were raw food vegans who insisted on subjecting their children to their nutritional choices:
MIAMI (Court TV) — A 6-month-old infant seemed more like a newborn when paramedics found her gasping for air on the floor of her parents' home, an emergency responder testified Tuesday in the manslaughter trial of the child's parents.

Paramedic Fernando Castano told jurors in the case against Joseph and Lamoy Andressohn that he mistook their 7-pound, 22-inch child for a newborn as he attempted to revive her.

Woyah died about 45 minutes later from what a medical examiner later diagnosed as "accidental malnutrition," according to Castano.

By their own admission to police, the couple kept their five children on a strict diet of uncooked organic foods and juices made from wheatgrass, almonds and coconuts.

During a lunch break in Miami-Dade Criminal Court, the couple snacked on nuts and grains wrapped in leaves of kale, with an apple on the side.

The couple faces 50 years in prison on manslaughter and child endangerment charges if convicted.
The Andressohns are also standing trial on counts related to Woyah's four older siblings, who, like her, were found to be smaller than 99 percent of other children their ages, Walker said.
According to other reports, the parents also administered enemas to their children on a regular basis and would whip the older children if they ate the wrong foods. Moreover, they apparently ignored obvious signs of malnutrition. This baby was half the weight she should have been and, according to the paramedics who responded to the call when she was unresponsive, Woyah was "rail thin" with a distended belly, looking "like something you might see in a National Geographic magazine, in an African country or a Third World country." Any pediatrician who saw the child would have instantly recognized that something was seriously wrong.

I truly can't understand something like this. Leaving aside the question of whether it's possible to raise a healthy child on a vegan diet (many vegans will claim it is), there's an obvious answer for vegan parents who want to raise their children as vegans in the first year of life: breast milk! It's the perfect food for human infants, providing all the nutrition a child needs, as well as immunoglobulins that aid the child in fighting off disease. It's the best diet for the first several months of life, bar none, and then can be used to supplement the baby's diet as solid foods are slowly added. Why on earth couldn't Woyah have been fed with breast milk, if the parents objected to dairy or meat products? Indeed, pro-vegan websites advocate this very strategy, and, once the child is eating solid food, to supplement with breast milk for as long as feasible and to provide various oils in the diet to make up for the lack of fats in a vegan diet. And, if the mother can't produce enough milk, there are soy-based formulas that can be used. As some vegans who have commented on the issue have said, to stay healthy eating a raw food vegan diet requires that you really know what you're doing, particularly with children. It is apparent that the Andressohns did not. It also requires that the child be monitored closely by a pediatrician to make sure that the child is appropriately gaining weight.

People like the Andressohns seem to think that this sort of uncooked vegan diet is somehow more "natural," but in reality it probably is not. Humans are and have been omnivores for a very long time, and the earliest humans were hunter-gatherers, who lived by scavenging dead animals, hunting, and gathering fruits and vegetables. We have evolved over millions of years to get a certain proportion of our calories from meat, a high energy, high protein source of food (exactly what proportion is a subject of debate, of course). Also, raw vegan diets require quite a bit of First World sanitation to be healthy. In the absence of such sanitation and very clean conditions, they can be a vector for food-borne illnesses. That does not mean a vegan diet is not healthy, but it is probably not any more "natural" than a mixture of meat, fruits, and vegetables, the claims of its adherents notwithstanding.

Not surprisingly, the parents are crying persecution and oppression. The defense is also claiming that the child in actuality died of DiGeorge Syndrome, not starvation, based on the finding of no thymus during the autopsy. While I do not dismiss the possibility that this child had DiGeorge Syndrome, the claim sounds unconvincing because the child did not have the other abnormalities that go along with the syndrome, such as congenital heart defects (such as Tetralogy of Fallot or ventricular septal defect), cleft palate, or facial abnormalities. Also, the pathology report demonstrated the presence of T cells, meaning a thymus must have been present, and prosecutors have pointed out that malnutrition can cause the thymus to shrink greatly. In any case, whether or not the defense has a point can be easily shown by a simple genetic test. If Woyah in fact had DiGeorge Syndrome, a simple fluorescence in situ hybridization (FISH) should detect the characteristic microdeletion of chromosome 22 (specifically, del 22q11.2). If the deletion is not there, the child did not have DiGeorge Syndrome. Even if the child did have DiGeorge Syndrome, that would not get the parents off the hook, because this syndrome is not associated with malnutrition and the child would not have been "doomed from birth," as Ellis Rubin, a lawyer for Lamoy Andressohn has claimed.

Also countering this claim of "persecution" is the rather interesting fact that Miami-Dade County Assistant State Prosecutor Herbert Walker is himself a raw food vegan, who is not buying this defense: "A growing child such as baby Woyah needs nutrients to grow. At the end of her life, and a painful life it was, the child had practically lost all her subcutaneous fat and her body was going through auto-cannibalism because she was not getting enough nutrients." He continued: "The question is, did the parents provide the care necessary for the well-being of their five children?"

I think the answer is obvious.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Please excuse my while I vomit...

Via an e-mail list I belong to, yesterday I learned of Prussian Blue, a duo of pretty 13-year old blonde twins named Lynx and Lamb who like to sing songs like Aryan Man Awake and Sacrifice (a tribute to Rudolf Hess) They're from Bakersfield, CA and have become darlings of the white supremacist and neo-Nazi circuit:
"We're proud of being white, we want to keep being white," said Lynx. "We want our people to stay white … we don't want to just be, you know, a big muddle. We just want to preserve our race."

Lynx and Lamb have been nurtured on racist beliefs since birth by their mother April. "They need to have the background to understand why certain things are happening," said April, a stay-at-home mom who no longer lives with the twins' father. "I'm going to give them, give them my opinion just like any, any parent would."

April home-schools the girls, teaching them her own unique perspective on everything from current to historical events. In addition, April's father surrounds the family with symbols of his beliefs — specifically the Nazi swastika. It appears on his belt buckle, on the side of his pick-up truck and he's even registered it as his cattle brand with the Bureau of Livestock Identification.

"Because it's provocative," explains April of the cattle brand, "to him he thinks it's important as a symbol of freedom of speech that he can use it as his cattle brand."
Sounds like their father is guilty of child abuse to me. One also has to wonder whether he's dropped one of those cattle brands on his head. (The Nazi Swastika, a symbol of freedom?) But, worse, the twins' popularity is growing, such that David Duke uses them to draw a crowd, and their music is being used as propaganda, with the hope that, as young fans mature, they are drawn to harder stuff:
Since they began singing, the girls have become such a force in the white nationalist movement, that David Duke — the former presidential candidate, one-time Ku-Klux-Klan grand wizard and outspoken white supremacist — uses the twins to draw a crowd.

Prussian Blue supporter Erich Gliebe, operator of one of the nation's most notorious hate music labels, Resistance Records, hopes younger performers like Lynx and Lamb will help expand the base of the White Nationalist cause.

"Eleven and 12 years old," he said, "I think that's the perfect age to start grooming kids and instill in them a strong racial identity."

Gliebe, who targets young, mainstream white rockers at music festivals like this past summer's "Ozzfest," says he uses music to get his message out.

But with names like Blue-Eyed Devils and Angry Aryans, these tunes are far more extreme than the ones sung by Lamb and Lynx.
Get a load of the lyrics to one of their songs, Aryan Man Awake:
When the man who plows the fields is driven from his lands.
When the carpenter must give away what he's built with his own hands.
When a mother's only children belong to her no more.
And black masked men with guns come bashing down the doors.
Where freedom exists for only those with darker skin.
Where lies and propaganda will never let you win.
Where symbols of your heritage are held with such contempt
And benefits of country 'cept tax are you exempt.

Aryan man awake
How much more will you take?
Turn that fear to hate
Aryan man awake.
All one can hope is that, as they get further into their teen years, they rebel a bit against their parents (as so many teenagers do) and renounce this sort of disgusting racist spew.

You know, I need to get back to medblogging and science blogging next week. This sort of stuff raises my blood pressure too much.

Orac survives

Halloween's coming up; and I thought a little holiday-themed post would do nicely. Perhaps a couple of more will appear in the next week or so, depending upon my mood...

In any case, I find my score results reassuring, should the world ever be overrun by zombies:

Official Survivor
Congratulations! You scored 64%!
Whether through ferocity or quickness, you made it out. You made the right choice most of the time, but you probably screwed up somewhere. Nobody's perfect, at least you're alive.

My test tracked 1 variable How you compared to other people your age and gender:
free online datingfree online dating
You scored higher than 51% on survivalpoints
Link: The Zombie Scenario Survivor Test written by ci8db4uok on Ok Cupid, home of the 32-Type Dating Test
Zombie-fighting skills may come in handy, given the woeful lack of preparedness in one of our major cities (Pittsburgh) for a full-scale zombie invasion.

Geez, if the Hitler Zombie hears about this, expect to be hearing some really stupid Nazi analogies coming out of Pittsburgh soon, rather than Madonna's latest evidence of brain damage due to the Hitler zombie's dietary choices. (Madonna said in response to a question about her new movie that features Kabbalah quite heavily: "Yeah, yeah… Strange. People get very upset about the fact that I decided to study a spiritual belief system. It's very strange. I may as well have announced that I've joined the Nazi party.")

You realize, of course, that, with Halloween approaching, it may be difficult for me to resist letting the Hitler zombie out of his crypt again, particularly since it's been two and a half months since his last appearance here. Better hope no one makes any really stupid Nazi analogies between now and October 31!

Comebacks to a cranks' favorite quote

There is a famous quotation that is a favorite of cranks every where attributed to Arthur Schopenhauer: "All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident."

Never mind that Schopenhauer probably never said this--it's nonetheless a favorite of cranks such as "intelligent design" creationism advocates, and similar statements have been attributed to many others.

Here are the responses, found in a discussion thread after a post on Pharyngula:

Response #1: That's true only for truth. There is no truth in intelligent design creationism.

Response #2: Yeah, but a lot of silly nonsense also gets laughed at and violently opposed. Undergoing stages one and two does not imply one will enter stage three.

Response #3: Is it too much to ask that ID should progress into the third stage of Schopenhauerian truth before it is taught in schools?

Response #3 is my favorite of these for "intelligent design" creationism. Response #2 is my favorite all purpose response. I'll have to remember them...

Interesting diet choice

Via various sites, I've found a rather odd set of recipes. It begins thusly:
The argument for eating Aliens
  1. Aliens come here uninvited.
  2. They ate Elvis.
  3. They mutilate our cattle, and probe abductees by shoving probes in their rectum and performing other unspeakable acts upon unsuspecting victims.
  4. They are plentiful, more plentiful than the strained seas and land resources, and they seem to be coming in increasing numbers (if you believe what some people are saying).
  5. They are Kosher meat.
  6. They taste good if prepared well.
  7. According to some,they mess around with the Space Shuttle, when astronauts launch sattelites.
  8. Their meat is safer than British Beef.
...and continues from there.

I think I'll pass, thank you very much.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Another lame justification for "intelligent design"

William Dembski has made some really weak arguments for "intelligent design" creationism, but this has to go into some sort of hall of fame for lame justifications:
At the time, Morowitz was quite taken with the biochemical and metabolic pathways in the human body and was examining possible self-organizational scenarios for how they might have emerged (for the staggering complexity of what needs to be explained, go here — click on portions of this “map” to zoom in). I asked him if he had made any progress in creating any portions of these pathways without using biogenic materials. He immediately replied, “You mean without enzymes.” I said, “yes.” He said, “no.”

I take this NO to be a huge admission and concession. Brute chemistry, as in the Miller-Urey experiment, can produce certain primitive building blocks of life. But to get anywhere beyond that, biologists studying the emergence of biological complexity invariably require biomacromolecules extracted from preexisting living systems. There appears to be no direct route through brute chemistry to the functionally integrated molecular systems that make biological organisms interesting.
This is an argument from incredulity (a. k. a. a divine fallacy) of the worst sort, with a false dilemma thrown in for good measure. The false dilemma (a. k. a. the false dichotomy) is Dembski's apparent implication that, because Dr. Morowitz (or anyone else) hasn't yet been able to reconstitute a biochemical pathway without using enzymes, it must mean that these pathways couldn't have come about by evolution. In other words, either we can somehow recreate networks of biochemical pathways in a test tube now without enzymes, or evolution must be incorrect. Never mind that he is mixing abiogenesis (how life came about from nonlife) with evolution, which says nothing about how life originally came about, only how it evolves after coming into existence. This is a favorite stupid ID trick, mainly because evolution is so well supported by the evidence but we know much less about abiogenesis, making it more speculative science. In any case, it is disingenuous to argue that, because metabolic pathways are so complex now and because they can't be reproduced in a test tube without enzymes, that God--excuse me, a "designer"--must have done it. It has taken billions of years of evolution to come up with the network of enzymes that catalyze the reactions, and scientists are developing plausible evolutionary mechanisms that could account for such pathways, despite ID advocates' claims otherwise. Just because Dembski can't imagine how such complex metabolic pathways might have developed through naturalistic processes (making them "irreducibly complex," according to his terminology), he concludes that God--sorry, I mean a "designer"--must have done it.

Arguments from incredulity stop science dead. After all, if, whenever scientists come up against a biological phenomenon that science can't yet explain, they were to automatically declare it "irreducibly complex" or invoke God--sorry again, I mean a "designer"--it would produce an attitude that science can't ever figure out the question. Invoking God or a "designer" is simply a way of throwing up one's hands and declaring a natural phenomenon too complex for us ever to understand.

Fortunately, real scientists don't behave this way.

I will, however, thank Dembski for turning me on to this über-cool link to a map of metabolic pathways. I've added it to my bookmarks.

Serious or parody?

Given the bit of doubt expressed by me and some commenters yesterday over whether the article that I was discussing was serious or a parody, I thought I'd throw out an entire blog for your consideration:

Conservatives for American Values

Consider these articles about science:

Science Is A Sham Week, Part I: The Introduction
Science Is A Sham Week, Part II: Intelligent Design
Science Is A Sham Week, Part III: Intelligent Designer
Science Is A Sham Week, Part IV: The Battle Rages
Science Is A Sham Week, Part V: The Conclusion

Serious or parody?

Maybe this will decide for sure. Or this.

OK, I know it's fairly obvious which is the correct answer to my question, but the sad thing is that it isn't always entirely obvious right away.

Dachau photoessay

Pundit Guy has posted an impressive photoessay of his recent visit to Dachau.

I may very well comment more on this either over the weekend or sometime next week. I just didn't have time last night to do the topic justice. In the meantime, there's always what I wrote about Dachau on the 60th anniversary of its liberation.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

The case against "intelligent design"?

I'd go along with this...

Skeptics Circle Reminder

Just a reminder: There's one week to go before the next edition of the Skeptics' Circle. It will be held on Thursday, October 27 at The Uncredible Hallq. Get your best skeptical blogging submitted to him before Wednesday night and join us for the festivities. I suspect that, with the legal proceedings going on in Dover these days, that there will be a lot to say about some of the more ridiculous statements emanating from the pro-ID side...

And, as always, Orac sez: If you're a blogger and want to host a future edition of the Circle, drop me a line at The guidelines and schedule are here, with more detailed guidelines (for the hardcore) here.

Shortsighted, not curious, and proud of it!

When I first encountered this post over at Pharyngula a couple of days ago, I wasn't planning on commenting on article to which PZ referred, even though I found it as disturbing as he did, and even though I don't have quite the same compunctions about "beating up on" a student that he does. (Humiliating students and residents for stupid answers is, alas, a longstanding tradition in medical education.) After all, PZ had already taken it on, as had Super Doomed Planet, Jason at Evolutionblog, and The Uncredible Hallq. Whatever I might say today, a couple of days later seemed superfluous. But then I thought about my college days a bit and decided that my take on this, although equally scathing to the attitudes expressed in the article, was nonetheless a bit different. But first, I feel obligated to give you a flavor of why this article was so disturbing. I sincerely hope that this is some sort of satire that misfired, but I fear that it is not.

The article, written by a journalism student named Stacey Perk and published in the Daily Iowan, is entitled On schooling's useless lessons. Rarely does one see such vapidity so proudly on display in the very first paragraphs:
I loved high school. I loved the memories I have of parties, football games, and hanging out with my friends. These are the things I have taken with me, not the useless information acquired in the classroom.

I remember complaining about how I'd never use knowledge I gained in the classroom in real life. I regretted all the time I devoted to school because, in the end, I didn't remember the algebraic equations, historical dates, or the periodic table.
Like omigod! So she loves parties and hanging out with her friends but remembers nothing of those nasty classes? It gets worse, though. I thought at first that this must be some intentionally ironic or half-satirical piece, but I still don't think it is:
A problem exists within the high-school education system: It doesn't prepare students for their careers. When I decided in high school that my major was going to be journalism, I took the only class offered by my school in hopes of learning the journalistic writing style. I didn't learn anything from that class. My teacher was not a journalism teacher; she was an English teacher. We spent every class silent reading instead of learning about the inverted pyramid.

The school system needs a reality check; most students aren't going to be mathematicians, historians, or chemists. So why do we have to take these classes? If students know at an early age what they want to do for their careers, then high schools should offer classes in that area. This would make me feel that the time I spent in the high-school classrooms wasn't a waste.
Let me get this straight. As a future journalist, you don't think that knowing some history is important? How do you plan on putting the events you report on in context for your readers? What about stories that involve some science? Don't you want to have a clue about what the issues are? How about math? How often do stories involve determining whether a politician's budget and tax promises add up?

Apparently college didn't bring any wisdom:
When I got to college, the education system did a better job of focusing on students' career goals. But even then, I found myself stressing over statistical equations and astronomy facts during my first two years. Why? I was never going to use that information. For open majors, the general-education requirements are great. For me, they were a waste of time and tuition.

Not only did the gen-ed classes waste my time and money, but they also hurt my GPA. Being forced to take classes makes them less interesting. If they aren't interesting, you won't do well in them. Statistics and astronomy bored me, so I opted not to attend class and neglected to study for them. These gen-ed classes caused my GPA to plummet.
The horror! Did it ever occur to you that perhaps by studying and committing yourself that you might raise that pesky GPA? No, it's far easier to blame the material. Did it ever occur to you that you might be put on assignments as a journalist that you fine equally uninteresting? What will you do then?

Here's a possible explanation for her attitude:
I shouldn't have to give up my dream of working at Glamour magazine because my GPA was low - all because of some stupid gen-ed classes that I was forced to take. Let's just get rid of them.
I keep hoping this is just bad satire, but keep coming back to the conclusion that it probably isn't. It's rather sad to see a future journalist fail to realize the value of a broad-based education. In fact, if any profession needs such a broad education, it's journalists!

But enough bashing Stacey. It's fun, but it's almost too easy. As Jason put it, she's just showing a bit of the petulant arrogance of youth. Life will teach her, and she will mature. Or it won't, and she'll remain vapid.

Certainly life taught me, which is my lead-in to my perspective on this issue, now that I'm over 20 years out from my college graduation. My dirty little secret is that the reason the article irritated me so is because there was probably a little bit of Stacey in me when I was in college. No, it's not the love of partying and hanging out with my friends, at least not to the extent Stacey seems to love them. (I was then, as I am now, pretty geeky and had only a relatively small circle of friends. I rarely "partied.") It was the blinkered attitude that I only needed to take classes relative to my major and career goals. It was also a bit of the same arrogance of youth that let me to take pride in being able to take the most difficult science classes and excel at them and viewing humanities courses as being somehow less worthy of my time and effort. You see, I knew I wanted to be a scientist or a physician from the very first day I entered college as a chemistry major. I also worried that, if I didn't take enough science classes or do well enough in them, that I wouldn't get into medical school or a good graduate program. This led me to be reluctant to take classes outside of my specialty, even ones that interested me. So insane was I that one year I took 17 credits in the fall semester, all but 3 of which were hard-core science classes, including graduate level biochemistry, and then did the same thing again the next semester. Talk about your lost year!

Yes, the science fascinated me, and yes I did very well in every class (well, every class other than second term organic chemistry, where I got my lowest grade ever in college, a B-; somehow my GPA survived though and they still let me get my chemistry degree). And it paid off. I got into the University of Michigan Medical School, which got around 3,000 applications every year for around 180 positions.

But by my senior year, I was starting to feel as though something was missing. I began to sense my shortsightedness, but by then it was too late to do much about it. There were only two terms left to take some nonscience classes that interested me, and that was not nearly enough time to make up for the three preceding years of relentless focus on chemistry and biology. I managed to fit in a creative writing course (the professor thought I was very good, by the way), an archaelogy course, and an English literature course. But that was it. There wasn't time for any more.

The next year, I was in medical school, and all hope of further diversifying my education was gone. Medical school is, after all, a professional school. Its purpose is to train doctors, not to provide a broad-based education. And there is so much to learn, so much information that must be mastered, that there just isn't room any more for anything unrelated to medicine. The pace is relentless, and the amount of knowledge and number of skills to acquire vast. Medical students have no choice but to develop tunnel vision. And it only gets worse during residency. True, I did go to graduate school during a break in my residency, but the focus there is almost as relentless on one's thesis project. The one good thing is that the point of graduate school in sciences is more to teach you how to think and how to apply the scientific method. Science changes so rapidly that the information we had to learn was not as important as learning how to teach ourselves, read the scientific literature, and apply it to our research. This was a relief compared to medical school, where there was a premium on mass memorization. Nonetheless, it was still highly focused, with minimal room for wandering outside of one's field.

Now that I'm on the wrong side of forty, I can't help but look back at my college days with just a twinge of regret. What I didn't appreciate then that I do now is that college can and should be one of the freest, best times of one's life, intellectually speaking. If you're fortunate enough to be able to go to college, you should take full advantage of it and not just use it to train yourself for a career, as important as that is. Regardless of what your career goals are or how rigorous your program is, in college you still have more time and freedom than you will ever have again in your life to study almost anything in addition to your future career. It's a wonderful time for experimentation and sampling of different disciplines, no matter what your major or your career goals are. You can study history, philosphy, any science, astronomy, mathematics, whatever. You can challenge your mind in ways that you never dreamt possible, if you choose to do so. But the time there so short. It doesn't seem that way at the time, when you're just leaving your teens and entering your twenties, but four years will pass almost before you know they're gone. Then it's off to either professional school, graduate school, or the "real world." Within a few more years, it's time to think about settling down, getting married, even having children. Once you've graduated from college, you'll never have as much time to explore so many different disciplines as you did in college. My biggest regret about college is that I didn't take an art class or take more literature or history courses.

College is your best chance to indulge your intellect in disciplines that you may never be exposed to again. It's your best chance to find out what really interests you. You can certainly try to do so later, but never again will you have as much time or opportunity, unless you win the lottery and can stop worrying about making a living. Never again will it be all laid out right there in front of you, ripe for the sampling. Not to take advantage of such a feast is a grave mistake. And such knowledge often comes in handy in unexpected ways. These days, I try to make up for it by indulging my interest in history and reading far more history than I ever did. Blogging may also be an expression of my desire to broaden my horizons and learn a bit about other things than medicine. Unfortunately, there is so little time. The only reasons I'm so prolific are because I'm a fast writer (at least when I'm not obsessing over the precise wording of a grant or a scientific paper I'm working on, which can lead me prodigious levels of writers' block), and because this happens to be my main hobby.

These days, I occasionally have college students majoring in various biological sciences rotating in my laboratory for credit. Some of them are pre-med students, and some want to get into a Ph.D. program, and sometimes they ask me for advice. One piece of advice I always give them is to take full advantage of their time in college by not just taking courses in biology. I encourage them to take as many courses outside of their intended field of specialty as they can fit in, the further afield from their major, the better. I tell them that there will be plenty of time to learn medicine or harder core science once they graduate to a graduate program or medical school, and there will never again be this much time or freedom to explore the world of literature, art, science, and mathematics.

Some actually seem appreciative, but some of them look at me as though I were a Martian when I tell them this.

Youth is wasted on the young.