Monday, February 18, 2008

Trading a little on the good and the bad...

Last post was really pretty depressing, and I'm still thinking about it. That being the case, I'm going to shift gears some and try to get some positive things in here along with the bad.

First off:

Pictures at an Exhibition!

I highly suggest checking the whole thing out. Recommended to me by a friend, and I have to say, I quite enjoy it. Then again, I played viola for many years (and still do occasionally). Gaijin, you may get a kick out of it. It looks pretty impressive. Love Salonen too.

So, now to leaven it with a little bad news. No Child Left Behind doesn't work. Granted, no surprise, and if you've been keeping up at all with the educational reforms going on in this country (I use reform in a loose, mostly negative way), then this should be quite obvious. Ah yes, drop your lowest performing students, or make their lives so miserable they want to drop out, and then your school gets instantly better. Great job, guys. I only marginally blame the administrators. Put them under a plan like NCLB and you can expect the most Machiavellian of tactics.

More below the fold.

Okay, so, a little more good stuff.

Rachmaninoff's piano concerto no. 3!

Also, an excellent performance.

And some bad stuff:

Tip o' the orange basket to Pharyngula.

I'm sorry sir, but, no, us "evilutionists" don't have a problem understanding that we are quite related to oranges. Distantly. Yes. Indeed. But related. Cut open an orange, and what do you see? Cells. Cut open a cat...cells. Inside? Organelles. Plants have chlorophyll, we have mitochondria; but basically we engage in the same metabolic processes. Oh, and DNA? Similar. Distantly related. Granted, cats use Hox genes and plants use MADS boxes (non-homologous), but, still basically a lot of the same sorts of things going on. We're related. Hate to tell you buddy. PZ Myers over at Pharyngula sums this up quite nicely.

I'm also going to steal one more from PZ, just for giggles:

And the sad thing is, they seem like such nice, regular people. These people are not extremists. They're just really committed to their faith, and it has completely warped their perception of reality. Granted, it's Tennessee, and those people can be pretty warped anyway...I lived beside them for many years...but still. I imagine going across America would produce many similar people: very nice and all, but completely in another world.

of other worlds...

A recent article of the Chicago Red Eye published an article on acupuncture.


Dowden attributed the growth spurt in part to a 1997 National Institutes of Health report, which stated that acupuncture is effective in postoperative and chemotherapy nausea, and in postoperative dental pain. Further, the report said acupuncture may be useful as an additional treatment for addiction, headaches and lower back pain, among other ailments. More recently, a report published this month suggests that acupuncture coupled with in-vitro fertilization helps increase a woman's chance of conceiving.

Now, I know, you may be saying "what's the harm?" Well, first of all, the studies that are mentioned really don't say what this article (and the ABC report) claim they say. More accurately, the report itself has a good deal of flaws (appeals to ancient knowledge, for one. Rampant. Plus, as a meta-analysis [always check to see whether they're doing an original experiment or just culling old ones...then study how well the old ones actually followed scientific procedures], it may be amplifying noise in the system). Look carefully, and you'll see the problem.

Let me spell this out some. First of all, three (of seven) of the studies this meta-analysis is based on are horribly flawed in that they included no blinding. They hypothesize that relaxation may help induce fertilization, while nervousness inhibits it. Well, acupuncture (as a whole know, face-to-face communication, maybe some soothing music, warm environment, etc) may just have some effect on relaxation...but this doesn't mean that acupuncture itself (as in, jabbing needles in your skin) has done anything. It's completely confounded! Also, looking at their subgroup analysis, only one grouping mattered: that which had low fertility rates anyway! Any effect here, with such low rates, could be due entirely to statistical noise, if there is an effect to begin with. There is also a publication bias to consider (in most journals, there is a bias to publish positive results...any positive both looks better than "no effect," and there are tons of reasons beyond there actually being no effect why you might not be able to reject the null hypothesis. I highly suggest picking up Keith Stanovich's How to Think Straight About Psychology for a good refresher course on statistics. Give it a good read-through...or ten.


"There is definitely still a lot of skepticism," said Dr. Melinda Ring, medical director of Northwestern Memorial Hospital's Center for Integrative Medicine. "As a new generation of physicians are becoming trained, complementary and alternative medicine education is being incorporated more and more into medical schools, at least to a small degree."

Another hurdle facing greater buy-in of acupuncture is a lack of medical research, said Dowden, of the acupuncture academy. "The biggest challenge with acupuncture is believability and understanding why it works, and is there evidence it works," he said. "For the real skeptics, there has to be a lot more research to back it up."

Well...yes, we are quite skeptical. Notice they carefully avoid saying "why it works." They leave that up to either to the woo-masters, or to general plausibility. I'm sorry, though, there is no evidence that there are chakras of energy in your body and that by sticking tiny needles into your skin you can "redirect" the flow of this energy. Again, I have to ask, "what evidence?" There really is no good research that comes from a blinded study and cannot be easily explained by placebo effects. I recall seeing a study a while back that actually included a control. The writer of the article mentions that apparently even fake acupuncture works, but doesn't follow this up, and totally lets a quote by one of the researchers sail by that acupuncture really works and is a valuable technique. Notice the numbers. 44% of the fake-acupuncture group improves (and this is subjective questionnaires...great), 47% of the real-acupuncture group...that's completely statistical noise. You've shown a placebo effect. Great. Acupuncture should cost a helluva lot less then.

This is one of the huge problems with "complementary alternative medicines" (CAM), they rely on "ancient wisdom," are rarely blinded, typically involve only conditions which can improve on their own, rely on subjective measures of experience (which may fall victim to cognitive dissonance, as in, "I paid how much for this? It has to work!"), and have no plausible means of explaining how the effect works.

Last bit:

Others just can't get passed those needles. "Once they're in, you realize they're just not that big of a deal. You really can't do harm with the needles unless you go to someone who really doesn't know what they're doing," said Jordan, who has been doing acupuncture since 1999.

Read that last sentence. At least two people have been seriously harmed by acupuncture, albeit one rather indirectly. I'm willing to bet there are a lot more who have had nerve damage or other harm through improper application of a needle. Let's not forget it is a rather sharp metal point entering your body.

Steve Novella already beat me to the punch on this one, with a much more in depth analysis. And apparently they covered something similar on the most recent episode of the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, found here. Check out Steve's blog. It's very good for dealing with general quackery.

Alright, last little bit, I promise.

Flocking in humans. Just goes to show that we will follow even the most inane and banal actions of other people. I think there's a fair link between this and some of the other stuff mentioned in this post. Maybe I'll play this out later on.

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