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Robert Todd Carroll


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logo.gif (2126 bytes)the Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter 56

June 16, 2005

"The creationists’ fondness for 'gaps' in the fossil record is a metaphor for their love of gaps in knowledge generally. Gaps, by default, are filled by God." --Richard Dawkins

In this issue:

What's New in The Skeptic's Dictionary & Skeptic's Refuge

There are two new entries: Mathias Rath and meta-analysis. I have made extensive revisions to the following entries: file-drawer effect, poltergeist, psychokinesis, and Zener ESP cards.

Minor changes were made to the following entries: astrology;
hypersensory perception, Afrocentrism, and pareidolia.

I've hooked up with Google and will soon be providing a Google search of both the Web and from most of my Web pages. The searches are fast and relevant. I determined that the inconvenience of a few ads at the top and bottom of the search-results pages is worth it.

You will also notice Gooooogle ads on a few pages. I can't put them on all of my pages because it seems like 75% of the time the automated ad maker wants me to advertise some psychic service. Some of the ads are incongruent but in my sick way I find them amusing, so I am leaving them up. For example, the ads on the Occam's razor page direct readers to a site that will let you hear God speak in 30 different ways and another site that will help you find out what God wants you to do with your life.

The answer, by the way, is that God wants you to spread skepticism to the four corners of the round earth and leave a copy of The Skeptic's Dictionary next to every Gideon Bible you come upon.

Causes and correlations

Andy Doddington wrote to suggest a new entry for The Skeptic's Dictionary: something along the lines of 'Trawling for Correlations'.

What Andy is referring to is the practice among many scientists of mining  data that has not been produced in controlled studies to find a correlation that, according to some arbitrary statistical formula, is deemed significant. The scientists then assert or imply that there is some sort of causal connection between the correlated items. That would be bad enough (logically speaking) but many scientists then use another arbitrary statistical formula to assess the relative risk of producing E by using C if C correlates with E. Andy's example is from a study asserting that using ibuprofen and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) increases the risk of having a heart attack.

The four-year study was done in the UK and involved 9,218 patients between the ages of 25 and 100 who suffered a heart attack for the first time. The researchers got information from the patients regarding prescriptions for NSAIDS and the findings were adjusted for other known factors in heart disease (smoking, obesity, age, history of heart disease). "Researchers found that for those prescribed NSAIDS in the three months just before the heart attack, the risk increased compared with those who had not taken these drugs in the previous three years. For ibuprofen, the risk increased by almost a quarter (24%), and for diclofenac it rose by over a half (55%)."

Andy writes: "Common sense indicates that there are bound to be some such correlations, regardless of whether there is a causative relationship. Indeed, given the popularity of ibuprufen as a painkiller, it would be surprising if this did not appear at some point."

We should add that the researchers went on to claim that the data imply that "one extra patient for every 521 patients was likely to suffer a first-time heart attack" by using ibuprofen. In other words, if ibuprofen had not been related to risk of heart attack, there should have been about 17 or 18 fewer first-time heart attack sufferers in their study. In other words, they found about 0.02 percent more cases than expected. That doesn't sound quite as bad as an increased risk of 24%.

I can see Andy's point but apparently this study compared those who used aspirin to those who used NSAIDS. The data might also be used to suggest that aspirin reduced the risk of heart attack. If there is a problem with this kind of study, it is probably in overstating the risk of using ibuprofen. There are certainly other factors to consider besides a slight increased risk of heart attack when deciding whether to prescribe or to take a medication.

Actually, I'm more concerned about another kind of research: the kind where the scientist is hell-bent on finding some sort of statistical evidence that something is either good or bad for you, depending on whether the scientist is promoting the something or is on a crusade to convince the world of the harm the something is doing. For example, on June 12, 2005, The Observer ran an article by Bob Woffinden with the headline:

Fluoride water 'causes cancer'
Boys at risk from bone tumours, shock research reveals.

As many of you know, there has been a long-standing controversy over fluoridation of public water supplies. One side argues that fluoride in the water is good for the teeth and that the science is very strong in support of fluoridation. The other side argues that there is no scientific evidence that fluoride is good for our teeth and that fluoridation is actually unhealthy. Some opponents of fluoridation argue that it is part of a sinister plot by communist or other evil forces to take over our minds and bodies. The research referred to by Woffinden that allegedly reveals that fluoride water causes bone cancer in boys (but not girls) is not based on a peer-reviewed scientific study published in a reputable journal. It is based on a doctoral dissertation that researchers from the Fluoride Action Network dug up in their propaganda war against fluoridation.

The evidence for this alleged causal link between fluoride and bone cancer in boys is to be found in Dr. Elise Bassin's dissertation, presented for her degree at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine in April 2001. How good is this research? Woffinden writes that the dissertation "obviously had merit because Bassin was awarded her doctorate." I'm sure that statement would bring a smile to many a professor's face. Woffinden also writes that "Bassin told The Observer her work was still going through the peer-review process, and she hopes that it will then be published." Peer-review is slow but it shouldn't take more than four years to publish new research that establishes a strong link between fluoridation and cancer.

Woffinden's article makes it sound like there was a conspiracy to prevent the public from having access to the work of Dr. Bassin. "Environmental organisations were repeatedly denied access to it, and even bodies such as the US National Academy of Sciences could not get hold of a copy. Eventually two researchers from the Fluoride Action Network were allowed to read it in the rare books and special collections room at Harvard medical library." If this is true, it is very odd. Maybe they do things differently in the east. Here on the west coast the last step toward getting one's doctorate is to present a copy (signed by the members of one's doctoral committee) to the university library, where it is then catalogued and made available for all to see.

What did these investigators from the Fluoride Action Network discover? We're told by Woffinden that the "research suggests that boys exposed to fluoride between the ages of five and 10 will suffer an increased rate of osteosarcoma - bone cancer - between the ages of 10 and 19." This is a very rare type of bone cancer and, according to Woffinden, accounts for about 3% of childhood cancers.

Environmental Working Group (EWG) claims it has had Bassin's research peer-reviewed and in its view the data is strong enough to warrant asking "that fluoride in tap water be added to the US government's classified list of substances known or anticipated to cause cancer in humans." EWG lists as one of its accomplishments that they fact-checked a report by ABC 20/20 reporter John Stossel in which he claimed that organic food was bad for consumers and showed that "he had fabricated two sets of test results. The network ordered Stossel to make an unprecedented apology on live national television." Stossel's version of the incident is a bit different. He claims a producer misunderstood the results of scientific tests: "In my report, I said 'our tests' found no pesticide residue on organic or conventional food. Turned out a producer misunderstood the scientists who did the testing for us. They had only searched for bacteria. They did no tests for pesticide residue."

EWG has been instrumental in getting pesticides banned and has been in the forefront of several other environmental issues involving government and corporate abuse of power and seeming indifference toward public health.

Here is EWG's statement on the science that supports their contention that "a substantial and growing body of peer-reviewed science strongly suggests that adding fluoride to tap water may not be the safest way to achieve the dental health benefits of fluoridation."

The overall weight of the evidence strongly supports the conclusion that exposure to fluoride in tap water during the mid-childhood growth spurt between ages 5 and 10 increases the incidence of osteosarcoma in boys ages 10 through 19. Biologically, the link between fluoride in tap water and bone cancer in boys is highly plausible. Fifty percent of ingested fluoride is deposited in bones, and fluoride is a mitogen that stimulates bone growth in the growing ends of the bones where the osteosarcoma occurs. Fluoride is also a confirmed mutagenic agent in humans, which suggests that fluoride can cause genetic damage in bone cells where it is actively deposited, in this case precisely where the osteosarcoma arises. Animal studies add further credence to the potential link between fluoride and bone cancer in males. The only two animal cancer bioassays conducted with fluoride both show rare bone tumors, many of which were malignant, in male as opposed to female test animals. And finally, three high quality epidemiology studies each show a strong association between fluoride in tap water and osteosarcoma in boys. While several epidemiology studies have failed to find an association between fluoride and osteosarcoma in boys, these studies typically did not look for a relationship between age of exposure to fluoride and the incidence of bone cancer in young males.

In other words, we must take their word for it that Bassin's research is solid and that those studies that didn't find what she found didn't dig deep enough into the data. However, the reasons they give for believing that the connection is highly plausible should hold for girls as well as boys. Without knowing how many subjects were in the animal studies and in Bassin's studies, and how many individuals were afflicted with bone cancer, there is no way to assess whether the fact that both found an association with males only is of any significance. And, of course, without knowing the details of Bassin's research, it is not possible to evaluate it.

EWG does tell us that

Bassin's doctoral dissertation was based on a reanalysis of data from another study that found no association between drinking water fluoride levels and bone cancer, co-authored by Harvard Department Chair Dr. Chester Douglass. In her reanalysis, Bassin examined the same cases and controls used by Douglass in 1995. Dr. Bassin, however, refined the analysis by limiting cases to individuals exposed at less than 20 years old and conducted a more detailed analysis of fluoride exposure and age-specific effects. The result was a very strong correlation between fluoride exposure and bone cancer, particularly for boys exposed at ages 6 through 8.

Thus, however many subjects were in Dr. Douglass's study, Bassin's data is a subset of that data consisting of fewer subjects. I could not discover how many subjects were in Bassin's data by reviewing the data posted by EWG.

EWG also tells us that the U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) did a study in 1991 and "found a significant association between fluoride exposure and bone cancer in boys." In 1992 the New Jersey Department of Health (NJDH) "found that young males living in fluoridated communities had significantly higher rates of osteosarcoma than young males living in non-fluoridated areas; males 10-19 years old in fluoridated areas were 6.9 times more likely to develop osteosarcoma than those in non-fluoridated areas."

It appears to me that EWG has an agenda and they are using the Bassin work to support that agenda. For some reason, the rest of the scientific community was not bowled over by the studies done over a decade ago. Apparently, no follow-up studies have been done and Bassin did not do her own study but mined the data of somebody else's study to support her conclusion.

Is there a causal connection between fluoridation of public water supplies and bone cancer in boys? Is there a significant risk for bone cancer that isn't outweighed by benefits from fluoridation? I don't know and I don't think EWG knows either. The National Academy of Sciences says it will release a report on fluoride safety in February 2006. Maybe we should all wait for that report before passing judgment on fluouridation. On the other hand, given the political history of this issue, it's unlikely that a single report by a scientific group is going to settle anything for the main combatants.

Feedback on intelligent design (ID)

Paul Murray writes

I haven't noticed any serious attempt to introduce ID into science classes here in Australia, and not because the Christian extremists would not be delighted to be able to do it. I'm sorry to be the one to have to tell you, but the USA is the only first world nation that is completely nuts at this particular juncture of history.

We are the world leader in this area, that's for sure, but other countries are starting to follow us down this path to phony science in the name of religion. Holland, another land of the free, is now debating the issue. Ivo Snijders writes from The Netherlands:

The Dutch Minister of Education, Maris van der Hoeven has announced that she wants to organize a discussion between scientists and advocates of ID. She believes that since the theory of evolution is incomplete, ID is a good alternative. Of course, the announcement has met with widespread disbelief and resistance. She insists the debate will take place at the ministry.

I might remind Paul that all it takes is a few extremists with a good political action plan - and the ID folks have a very good one - to disrupt a country's science education system. No country is immune from the kind of movement that has occurred here. It starts with something like this Web site in Australia, John Mark Ministries. The first step is to tell the world that ID is not creationism but science that makes no mention of a creator (wink, wink) and that it is the fanatical Darwinists who are giving that false impression to protect their own vital interests in promoting atheism and materialism. Next, you convince a bunch of scientifically illiterate journalists and school board members that ID is a serious challenge to evolution and that the ID issue is very controversial in the science of evolution (which it isn't). Finally, you work on getting the ignorant press to report on how unfair it is not to teach the controversy and let people study both sides of the issue and make up their own minds. Keep an eye out, Paul. Don't be surprised if this movie comes to a theater near you.

Speaking of the ID wars in this country....It has been announced in Blufton, Indiana, that intelligent design will continue to be a part of the Bluffton-Harrison’s High School science curriculum. The school board voted 4-1 to continue requiring the district’s science educators to discuss “appropriate theories” — such as intelligent design and evolution — and give a “fair and balanced” presentation when teaching about the origin of the universe and life. Sounds good and it will probably be about as fair and balanced as anything you'll see on Fox.

In the UK the culture wars over ID heated up when Richard Dawkins published an article about the Kansas state board of education in The Times entitled "Creationism: God's gift to the ignorant." On this side of the pond, one of the Kansas board members called evolution a fairy tale. (See Newsletter 55 for more on Kansas.) Michael Ruse has a new book out on the wars: The Evolution-Creation Struggle (Harvard, 2005). Ruse, a Darwinian, seems to be calling for a kinder, gentler approach geared to understanding each other rather than to seeing things in black and white and in terms of irreconcilable differences.

Dylan Evans, a professor of robotics at the University of West England in Bristol, wrote an article for the Guardian of London deriding the old-fashioned, "19th-century" atheism of  Richard Dawkins and Jonathan Miller. Evans proposes a truce and a new, modern atheism that "values religion, treats science as simply a means to an end and finds the meaning of life in art." Salman Rushdie (in a letter to the Toronto Star) responded to Evans's plea by noting that "Such a truce would have a chance of working only if it were reciprocal — if the world's religions agreed to value the atheist position and to concede its ethical basis, if they respected the discoveries and achievements of modern science, even when these discoveries challenge religious sanctities, and if they agreed that art at its best reveals life's multiple meanings at least as clearly as so-called "revealed" texts. No such reciprocal arrangement exists, however, nor is there the slightest chance that such an accommodation could ever be reached." Amen to that, brother.

Belief in the paranormal still strong

A new Gallup poll found that in America 25% of us (plus or minus 3%) don't believe in anything paranormal. That means, of course, that about three-fourths of us believe in things like ESP, ghosts, astrology, channeling, and communicating with spirits. Belief in demonic possession hasn't changed much in the past ten years. It's hard to believe that in the 21st century in the most technologically advanced country in the world this belief is still strong. Four out of every ten adults in the US believe in possession by the devil. According to Gallup, "Christians are a little more likely to hold some paranormal beliefs than non-Christians (75% vs. 66%, respectively), but both groups show a sizeable majority with such beliefs." More than half of us believe in psychic healing. About a fourth of us believe "that the position of the stars and planets can affect people's lives" and "that extra-terrestrial beings have visited earth at some time in the past." One-fifth of us still believe in witches.

No wonder intelligent design is considered a viable option by many people.

Internet Cons

I received an inquiry from Tom Zeller at the New York Times regarding my opinion on the nature of gullibility online. The Annenberg Public Policy Center has come out with a report and some advice on shopping. I'll mention just one item:  49% of those surveyed didn’t know that banks do not send their customers e-mails that ask them to click on a link to verify their account. Nor do they cold-call customers and request social security or bank account numbers. The rule of thumb I follow is: Never give a social security number or bank account number to anyone unless you are the one who has initiated the call or the inquiry.

My opinion, for what it's worth, is that most people who use the WWW are ignorant of how Web sites are created, URLs rented, e-mail addresses manipulated, and the like. Technological ignorance, and not just from newbies, prevents many people from recognizing a well designed phony mimic. Add to that the usual mix--social life depends on trust, people are greedy and self-deceived about their ability to recognize a con--and you have a very inviting arena for crooks trolling for victims. Also the relative ease and inexpensiveness of WWW scams contributes to the massive quantity of the schemes. Finally, I don't think many users of the Internet realize that there are virtually no rules and even fewer enforcers of rules in cyberspace. There are some good sites that teach people about schemes, scams, and frauds but they're far outnumbered by the schemers and probably always will be.

I do think there is a significant difference between those who are victimized by professional phishers and those who are duped by chain letters and e-mail rumors. The latter are probably duped offline as frequently as online. The former are probably not especially gullible. But we're talking about so many different kinds of scams and schemes that it probably isn't wise to generalize too much here.

I wrote a piece on hoaxes and frauds a couple of years ago and argued that there isn't any surefire way to avoid being deceived, no matter how great one's critical thinking skills are. I also came up with two guiding rules: 1. Don't trust people you trust. and 2. Don't expect any help from the media. There are some exceptions, I know. But the media is generally not in the forefront of fighting scams, frauds, and hoaxes. This is especially true of television. For example, rather than investigate why some people in law enforcement are led to believe that some people are psychic crime fighters, TV will create a series like Psychic Detectives or Medium, talk shows will host "psychics," etc. Who can blame them since the public loves such stuff. The print media sin more by omission. Pursuing fraud on the Internet doesn't seem to be much of a priority for anybody.

Scam of the minute

Magneural6.S promises to expand your mind with magnets and one-celled bacteria. "Unique Magnetic Properties have been found in the cell and brain tissues of all animals including humans, explaining Extraordinary Animal Sixth Sense..." You can get a 30-day supply for just $79 if you act fast. Hurry, supplies are limited to the terminally gullible!

Amway and free speech

One method of attempting to stifle free speech is to sue or threaten to sue a critic. There is an interesting account of a suit filed by one of Amway's children, Team of Destiny, against a very vocal online critic named Scott Larsen. The details are too complicated to get into in a newsletter, but some of you might find them interesting. If so, see The Quixtar Blog, "the personal journal of the husband of a former Quixtar IBO." An IBO is an independent business owner, the term Amway folks use now to speak of their upline and downline distributors.

A newsletter for kids

On Tuesday, June 21, not only will summer begin in our hemisphere but Inquiring Minds will be launching an online quarterly newsletter for kids, according to Amanda Chesworth, Educational Director, Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. I am going to try to squeeze out an article for the first issue, but if I fail, check the Fall issue. The URL will be

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