Mass Media Funk is a commentary on mass media stories about the scientific, the paranormal, the supernatural, and anything else that yanks at my eyebrows.


Robert Todd Carroll
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43

January 13, 2005. Two years ago, the Cobb Country (GA) School Board said it was just encouraging critical thinking when it required a sticker be placed in all biology texts that states

This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered.

Last August, six parents filed a federal lawsuit against the Cobb school system over the disclaimers. Today, U.S. District Judge Clarence Cooper issued his decision.  He ordered the school system to remove the stickers. The disclaimers, ruled Judge Cooper, are an unconstitutional endorsement of religion.

By denigrating evolution, the school board appears to be endorsing the well-known prevailing alternative theory, creationism or variations thereof, even though the sticker does not specifically reference any alternative theories.

The school board issued a statement indicating that they just don't get it.

The textbook stickers are a reasonable and evenhanded guide to science instruction and encouraging students to be critical thinkers.

The plaintiffs, six parents and the American Civil Liberties Union, had argued that the disclaimers violated the separation of church and state and unfairly singled out evolution from all other scientific theories as suspect.

Judge Cooper wisely stated in his decision

While evolution is subject to criticism, particularly with respect to the mechanism by which it occurred, the sticker misleads students regarding the significance and value of evolution in the scientific community.

It certainly does. There are no stickers in the physics or chemistry books. There are none in the social science books. The only theory singled out by the school board is evolution and the reason was obvious to the judge: the theory of evolution is understood as implying that God didn't make the species one by one and that God isn't even necessary for making any species at all. If evolution is correct, the school board members and the thousands of parents (2,300, to be exact) who support them believe that then their religious views are wrong. Accepting evolution is as much as accepting atheism. It is the same as believing we have no souls and are nothing but material beings with no possibility of an afterlife. According to recent polls, about 35% of Americans believe that evolution implies no God, no soul, no afterlife, no truth in the Bible. Understandably, they resent being looked at as ignorant Luddites by the scientific community. (Other polls put the number as high as 55%. I suspect the different result is due to the way the questions were asked and the kind of responses allowed.)

The state of Alabama also requires a sticker be placed in its science texts. The sticker warns that evolution is "a controversial theory some scientists present as a scientific explanation for the origin of living things. . . .No one was present when life first appeared on earth. Therefore, any statement about life's origins should be considered as theory, not fact."

According to Newsday, officials in Alabama said they do not think Judge Cooper's ruling affects their disclaimer.

Tonight's ABC's "Nightline" focused on the creationism/intelligent design/evolution issue in Dover, PA. The show was a very accurate portrayal of what is happening in that community: It is being torn apart by a division between those who are attempting to bring down evolution with the wedge of intelligent design and those who want science instruction to remain separate from religion.

Any victories in this area are bound to be short-lived and tenuous because of the powerful religious motivations of a significant percentage of the population. Yet, on hearing of Judge Cooper's decision, Benjamin Z. Freed, an anthropology professor at Atlanta's Emory University and chairman of Georgia Citizens for Integrity in Science Education, declared that "Obviously, this is quite a victory for good science education." The other side, however, sees the decision as another example of a liberal judge imposing his own personal beliefs on society.

"It's another example of how the bench is dictating to people what symbols they can display, if they can pray or not pray or if they can teach a particular subject," said Sadie Fields, head of the Georgia chapter of the Christian Coalition.

Intelligent design was once the theory held by almost all European scientists. Then Darwin proposed his theory of natural selection to explain how species evolved from other species. It took awhile but eventually Darwin's theory replaced the theory of an intelligent designer of separate species. At least, that is how the majority of scientists see it. There has always been a segment of society which has rejected natural selection because of its irreligious implications. My guess is that as long as there are significant numbers of Americans who think the Bible's stories are literally true and who take these stories as accurate descriptions of physics, chemistry, geology, and biology, we will have strong opposition to the theory of evolution. And this opposition will use any means at its disposal to attack the teaching of evolution.

further reading

January 12, 2005. A new book on plants warns that many botanical oils - known as "essential oils" - are allergenic. Donald G. Crosby, author of The Poisoned Weed: Plants Toxic to Skin, says that such essential oils as chamomile, citronella, lavender, and peppermint can cause allergic reactions, including a type of dermatitis.

Crosby is my neighbor and a retired professor of environmental toxicology from the University of California, Davis. He may be retired but he hasn't stopped working. He once gave me free advice to help me survive one of the unspoken hazards of playing golf: Never lick your golf ball to clean it and always wash your hands after you finish a round, especially if you play when the grass is wet,  because your ball has most likely picked up residues of toxins from the chemicals used by the groundskeeper.

Crosby's new book warns us that botanicals are potential causes of rashes and they are everywhere: in our household plants, in everyday food items like lettuce and artichokes, and in shampoos, soaps, and lotions.

Don is a scientist, so when he contracted a bad case of poison oak, he did research to find out why it is so poisonous.

Consulting the scientific literature, he found that a mixture of chemicals known as urushiol (oo-roo-SHEE-ahl) are partly to blame, but only partly. A reaction caused by enzymes in the skin leads the urushiol to combine with skin cell proteins to make allergens. ("Plant secrets we've been itching to know" by Edie Lau, Sacramento Bee, January 3, 2005.)

Other plants that produce urushiol or urushiol-like chemicals include the cashew, mango, and philodendron.

Another class of chemicals that cause rashes are the lactones, which react with human proteins to become allergens. Marigolds, chrysanthemums, artichokes, and lettuce contain lactones.

According to Edie Lau, the Sacramento Bee science writer, The Poisoned Weed: Plants Toxic to Skin, "though expensive and largely technical in nature ... contains much eye-opening information for non-scientists about the many ways in which we unwittingly expose ourselves to itch-inducing botanical products."

Even toilet paper and diapers can be laced with scented oils that cause itching.

Jan 11, 2005. Peter Bergen asks why Islamic nations are so quick to criticize the West, but so slow to respond to people in need, including other Muslims. Saudi Arabia, for example, has pledged a mere $30 million for tsunami victim relief.

reader comments

The US has a GDP of about $11 trillion, Japan $3.6 trillion, and Saudi Arabia $288 billion (all figures per CIA Factbook).

The Saudis pledged $30 million (0.001% of GDP), the same as Japan (0.0008% of GDP), and the US pledged $350 million (0.0004% of GDP) after a big bump from $35 million.

That is, as a portion of GDP the Saudis pledged 1.125 times as much as Japan and 2.5 times as much as the US. Methinks Mr. Bergen is grinding his axe on a very soft stone.

John Renish

Jan 8, 2005.  Gangaji has moved to Ashland, Oregon, from Marin County (north of San Francisco) with her husband Eli Jaxon-Bear and her staff of 12. Gangaji, born Toni Varner in Mississippi, gives seminars in which she teaches participants to overcome suffering by tapping into the "silent, intelligent love" in us all.

Ashland, internationally known for its Shakespeare festival and Rogue brewing company, has grown over the past decade into a New Age haven, attracting such notables as Jean Houston, Gary Zukav, Jose Arguelles ("I complete the prophecy cycle of Pacal Votan and Quetzalcoatl"), and Neale Donald Walsch.

According to John Darling of the Ashland Mail Tribune, Gangaji and Jaxon-Bear were taught by holy man Poonjaji in India in 1991 and were instructed to bring the information to the West.

Gangaji attained note in the 1990s with her book You Are That! Satsang With Gangaji. Jaxon-Bear is the author of The Enneagram of Liberation.

Jan 2, 2005. CLICK HERE FOR FREE VIOXX RECALL CASE EVALUATION reads the Web site for Parker and Waichman. My local newspaper (The Sacramento Bee) also carried an ad from a law firm soliciting potential customers for suits against Merck & Co. By now, most of you know that Merck removed the arthritis drug Vioxx from the market worldwide because data from a clinical trial was interpreted to imply that Vioxx poses an unacceptable increased risk of heart attack and stroke.

What was the data? There were 2,600 patients in the study. After 18 months, the rates for myocardial infarction (MI) or stroke were 3.5% in the experimental group and 1.9% in the control group. In other words, there were about 46 cases of MI or stroke in the Vioxx group and about 25 such cases in the placebo group. Twenty-one more cases in the Vioxx group amounts to less than one percent of all those in the study and about 1.6% of the Vioxx group. How great a risk does the data indicate one is taking by using Vioxx?

The way it was presented by Food and Drug Administration drug-safety experts Vioxx allegedly caused up to 160,000 heart attacks and strokes. The media picked up on the fact that the MI and stroke incidence was about double in the Vioxx group. Two obvious consequences of these reports are (1) anybody taking Vioxx who had a heart attack or stroke since taking it will be sure the Vioxx caused it, and (2) there will be plenty of lawyers ready to go to court to argue the case, even though logically it could never be proved that just because a person had a heart attack or stroke after taking Vioxx, the Vioxx caused it.

Even so, the relative risk or risk ratio of Vioxx to placebo is 1.8. How significant is that? (revised 10/30/05) For most us, the great innumerate, the numbers thrown at us by statisticians are as clear as mystical chants. Here are some Internet sources I've looked at that try to clarify concepts like 'relative risk,' 'absolute risk', 'risk ratio', 'odds ratio', and a few others.

  • Bandolier: evidence based thinking about health care

  • National Institute on Aging: Understanding Risk: What Do Those Headlines Really Mean? I would add the following comments to #7 in their list (Who paid for the research? Do those providing support stand to gain financially from positive or negative results? Sometimes the Federal government or a large foundation contributes funding towards research costs. This means they looked at the plans for the project and decided it was worthy of funding, but they will not make money as a result. If a drug is being tested, the study might be partly or fully paid for by the company that will make and sell the drug.): It is not true that if the Federal government or a large foundation contributes funding toward research costs it "means they will not make money as a result." Many foundations are front organizations for businesses and industry and are closely allied to politicians who depend on them for large contributions. These institutes support research that favors the economic interests of their clients. Furthermore, it is misleading to suggest, as #7 does, that there is something sinister about a drug company which is developing a new drug to be paying for the testing of that drug. Drug companies would be irresponsible if they developed new drugs and left it to others to test them. Ask yourself: Who should pay for the testing of a company's product if not the company itself? A rival company? The government, whose dominant party members might have an economic interest in the outcome of those tests?

According to mathematician John Brignell, "In observational studies, [scientists] will not normally accept an RR of less than 3 as significant and never an RR of less than 2." [This is often true of scientists who are trying to cast doubt on the significance of a study. The motives of such scientists are often to support some industry's goal of not having their product regulated by the government. Such scientists are often supported by politicians who are supported by the industry in question. See Chris Mooney's The Republican War on Science] Why?  What the data show are correlations, not causal connections. There are a number of other possible reasons for the disparity in the two groups besides a causal connection between Vioxx and MI or stroke. Even if there is a causal connection, it might not be a strong one. Given the choice between suffering chronic pain every day for the rest of one's life or relieving the pain by taking a small risk of MI or stroke, many patients might well be willing to take the risk. They won't be given that option, now. Worse, the 2,000,000 people who were taking Vioxx will now think they were guinea pigs in a drug experiment. Why would they trust the next drug their physician prescribes?

According to the data, about 38,000 Vioxx patients per year would have suffered MI or stroke anyway, but you can bet that the lawyers and patients alike will ignore this fact. Stephen M. Lindsey, M.D., head of rheumatology at Ochsner's Baton Rouge facility, says, "We are telling people to not get too hysterical. It's not that everybody taking Vioxx is going to keel over. It was actually a small number of patients. If the risk of heart attack is 1 in 1,000 and increases to 2 in 1,000, it is still a pretty rare event. So we explain even though risk is increased, it is still a rare event."

It wouldn't be surprising to read about a jury awarding millions to a Vioxx patient with a history of smoking, diabetes, high cholesterol, and  a family history of heart disease. Heart attack? Must have been the Vioxx. Sue Merck. They can afford it.

By the way, Celebrex appears to be safer than Vioxx, though it, too has been taken off the market.

reader comments

Re the Brignell quote: "In observational studies, [scientists] will not normally accept an RR of  less than 3 as significant and never an RR of less than 2."

This is a widely quoted rule, but it vastly oversimplifies the issue. A small RR is a weaker form of evidence, because it is possible to be swamped by even small biases and flaws in the research study. A large RR is a stronger form of evidence, because only a huge bias or flaw could produce an alternate explanation for these findings.

Weak evidence, however, is not the same thing as no evidence. Weak evidence that is replicated and backed up by a credible biological mechanism can become sufficiently persuasive.

The original source of the rule you cite is a paper by Austin Bradford Hill published in 1965. It listed nine criteria that you should consider when evaluating a research finding from observational data. It was developed during a time when epidemiologists had just successfully built a case linking smoking and lung cancer on the foundation of numerous research studies, none of which was perfect. The lessons learned in that situation became guidelines for applying epidemiologic principles to other toxic exposures. The first criterion that Hill cited, strength of association, has unfortunately morphed into a dichotomy that all RRs smaller than 2 are bad and all RRs larger than 2 are good, in spite of numerous cautions, both by Hill himself in that article and by many epidemiologists since then.

In the classic textbook, Modern Epidemiology (Second Edition), Rothmann and Greenland point out (page 24) that the relationship of cigarette smoking and cardiovascular disease is a weak association, because it is pretty hard to double the risk of a disease that is already responsible for about 40% of all deaths.*  Nevertheless, pretty much everyone accepts the link between smoking and cardiovascular disease. If you relied on John Brignell's advice about relative risks less than 2 or 3, then your standard of proof would require that 80% to 120% of all smokers would have to die from cardiovascular disease. Nothing, not even cigarettes can produce 120% mortality, and even 80% mortality from a single cause is probably out of reach.

A good recent commentary on this issue is "The missed lessons of Sir Austin Bradford Hill" by Carl Phillips and Karne Goodman (Epidemiologic Perspectives & Innovations 2004, 1:3) which has full free text available on the web.

That's my major quibble. A minor quibble is that this rule is usually restricted, even by John Brignell, to observational studies. But the study that showed an increase in risk for VIOXX was a randomized study.

This doesn't mean that the rest of your comments are incorrect. It is indeed possible that we are all overreacting to weak data. I don't think the final chapter has been written yet on VIOXX and other drugs in its class.

Steve Simon

update: January 24, 2005. Today's Lancet reports on a Food and Drug Administration study that analyzed data from 1.4 million people in California who had used Vioxx, Celebrex, or other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) between 1999 and September last year. According to BBC.com,

The researchers found 40,000 had used celecoxib, just under a million had used ibuprofen, 435,000 naproxen and 27,000 Vioxx....When the researchers examined the risk of heart problems linked to each drug, they found people taking Vioxx had a 34% higher chance of coronary heart disease when compared to people taking other NSAIDs.

This new data seems to provide strong support for the removal of Vioxx from the marketplace.

further reading

Dec 30, 2004. It must have seemed like Armageddon to the millions of people who had to face the furious seas and the tearing asunder of the ground beneath their feet. The final war between good and evil was on and evil was winning. The enormity of the catastrophe is hard to fathom: more than a hundred thousand deadly tales and millions of others full of horror and anguish. Though Nature is indifferent, we cannot be--most of us, anyway. The photos of the dead children, the mass graves, the outstretched hands remind us of our common bond. And, unless we are completely delusional, we must realize that the same kind of thing could happen to any of us at anytime, even though the odds of such things happening are so remote as to not be worth worrying about.

Like many of you, I was puzzled as to why Sylvia Browne, John Edward, or James Van Praagh hadn't gotten a message from the dead about what was coming. (Gordon Michael Scallion says his future map of the world is evidence he predicted the quake.) I wanted help in understanding the event so I did a quick check of Jerry Falwell's and Pat Robertson's websites. I was surprised to find that they have nothing to say about the earthquake in Sumatra and the subsequent tsunamis that certainly rank as the worst natural disasters on this planet in my lifetime. The devastation is a reminder that Earth is still being born, but I expected the preachers to be blaming liberals for bringing on God's wrath or some such thing. To my shock and dismay, they are completely silent on the subject. You might expect at least a perfunctory call to all good Christians to aid those in need, but no, not a word. Nothing about soul-making or building character by having God throw down the gauntlet now and again. Nothing about Job. Nothing about praying for the souls of those killed, which is just as well since many of those killed may have been at prayer when they were swept away.

Others are talking, however, and they are a reminder of how the mind works: we rationalize anything and everything to fit our bias. Millions of people survived and no doubt many of them are thanking God for protecting them. Others are probably invoking karma. I'm sure a few of my fellow skeptics are asking their religious friends what kind of God would allow this? People of faith don't doubt God has good reasons for whatever happens, including allowing devastating earthquakes and tsunamis that kill thousands of people and leave millions homeless, without water or food. On the other hand, if only the Ten Commandments had been posted in public buildings in Asia, God might have spared the world this punishment. People of science don't doubt that Nature is indifferent to the sorrow and suffering of creatures on this or any other planet or moon. Such violent disturbances are just the sort of thing you'd expect from an evolving body driven and limited only by inherent forces and laws, unless of course, you're an astrologer or Tarot card reader or some other sorry paranoid who expects the world to end soon, as explained in the Bible or by Nostradamus.

It's really not the time for philosophizing. Anything we say seems obscene. I would like to pass on the word, though, that Arthur C. Clarke and his "family and household have escaped the ravages of the sea that suddenly invaded most parts of coastal Sri Lanka, leaving a trail of destruction." Barry Karr, executive director of CSICOP has sent out a copy of an e-mail Sir Arthur sent to Andrea Szalanski, managing editor of Free Inquiry magazine. In addition to letting the world know he is alive and well, Sir Arthur also writes:

This is indeed a disaster of unprecedented magnitude for Sri Lanka, which lacks the resources and capacity to cope with the aftermath. We are encouraging concerned friends to contribute to the relief efforts launched by various national and international organisations. If you wish to join these efforts, I can recommend two options.
 
- Contribute to a Sri Lanka disaster relief fund launched by an internationally operating humanitarian charity, such as Care or Oxfam.

- Alternatively, considering supporting Sarvodaya, the largest development charity in Sri Lanka, which has a 45-year track record in reaching out and helping the poorest of the poor. Sarvodaya has mounted a well organised, countrywide relief effort using their countrywide network of offices and volunteers who work in all parts of the country, well above ethnic and other divisions. Their website, www.sarvodaya.lk, provides bank account details for financial donations. They also welcome contributions in kind -- a list of urgently needed items is found at: http://www.sarvodaya.lk/Inside_Page/urgently%20needed.htm
 

The Red Cross is another option for those who wish to contribute to the recovery and relief effort.

reader comments

The Chinese earthquake of 28 July 1976 almost certainly killed more people. Because of Chinese government secrecy, the real number may never be known, but it was at least 250,000 and more likely nearer 750,000.

John Renish

Dec 22, 2004. According to a report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, 20 percent of herbal medicine products sampled contained dangerous levels of toxic heavy metals. Herbal "medicine" products are sold as dietary supplements, which are not required to undergo testing before entering the marketplace.

 

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