Thursday, July 30, 2009

Standing Up for Simon Singh

(This is simply a repost of an article by Simon Singh, which got him sued by the British Chiropractic Association. A lot of skeptics are reposting this article today in support of Mr. Singh.)

Some practitioners claim it is a cure-all, but the research suggests chiropractic therapy has mixed results - and can even be lethal, says Simon Singh.

You might be surprised to know that the founder of chiropractic therapy, Daniel David Palmer, wrote that "99% of all diseases are caused by displaced vertebrae". In the 1860s, Palmer began to develop his theory that the spine was involved in almost every illness because the spinal cord connects the brain to the rest of the body. Therefore any misalignment could cause a problem in distant parts of the body.

In fact, Palmer's first chiropractic intervention supposedly cured a man who had been profoundly deaf for 17 years. His second treatment was equally strange, because he claimed that he treated a patient with heart trouble by correcting a displaced vertebra.

You might think that modern chiropractors restrict themselves to treating back problems, but in fact some still possess quite wacky ideas. The fundamentalists argue that they can cure anything, including helping treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying - even though there is not a jot of evidence.

I can confidently label these assertions as utter nonsense because I have co-authored a book about alternative medicine with the world's first professor of complementary medicine, Edzard Ernst. He learned chiropractic techniques himself and used them as a doctor. This is when he began to see the need for some critical evaluation. Among other projects, he examined the evidence from 70 trials exploring the benefits of chiropractic therapy in conditions unrelated to the back. He found no evidence to suggest that chiropractors could treat any such conditions.

But what about chiropractic in the context of treating back problems? Manipulating the spine can cure some problems, but results are mixed. To be fair, conventional approaches, such as physiotherapy, also struggle to treat back problems with any consistency. Nevertheless, conventional therapy is still preferable because of the serious dangers associated with chiropractic.

In 2001, a systematic review of five studies revealed that roughly half of all chiropractic patients experience temporary adverse effects, such as pain, numbness, stiffness, dizziness and headaches. These are relatively minor effects, but the frequency is very high, and this has to be weighed against the limited benefit offered by chiropractors.

More worryingly, the hallmark technique of the chiropractor, known as high-velocity, low-amplitude thrust, carries much more significant risks. This involves pushing joints beyond their natural range of motion by applying a short, sharp force. Although this is a safe procedure for most patients, others can suffer dislocations and fractures.

Worse still, manipulation of the neck can damage the vertebral arteries, which supply blood to the brain. So-called vertebral dissection can ultimately cut off the blood supply, which in turn can lead to a stroke and even death. Because there is usually a delay between the vertebral dissection and the blockage of blood to the brain, the link between chiropractic and strokes went unnoticed for many years. Recently, however, it has been possible to identify cases where spinal manipulation has certainly been the cause of vertebral dissection.

Laurie Mathiason was a 20-year-old Canadian waitress who visited a chiropractor 21 times between 1997 and 1998 to relieve her low-back pain. On her penultimate visit she complained of stiffness in her neck. That evening she began dropping plates at the restaurant, so she returned to the chiropractor. As the chiropractor manipulated her neck, Mathiason began to cry, her eyes started to roll, she foamed at the mouth and her body began to convulse. She was rushed to hospital, slipped into a coma and died three days later. At the inquest, the coroner declared: "Laurie died of a ruptured vertebral artery, which occurred in association with a chiropractic manipulation of the neck."

This case is not unique. In Canada alone there have been several other women who have died after receiving chiropractic therapy, and Edzard Ernst has identified about 700 cases of serious complications among the medical literature. This should be a major concern for health officials, particularly as under-reporting will mean that the actual number of cases is much higher.

If spinal manipulation were a drug with such serious adverse effects and so little demonstrable benefit, then it would almost certainly have been taken off the market.

Simon Singh is a science writer in London and the co-author, with Edzard Ernst, of Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial. This is an edited version of an article published in The Guardian for which Singh is being personally sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association.


Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Thunderf00t Debates Ray Comfort

An interesting series, unedited, of a video debate YouTube personality Thunderf00t had with Ray "Bananas are the Atheist's Nightmare" Comfort. It goes about how you'd probably imagine. I'm not saying Thunderf00t had a great performance here. I'd say it was very good, but not great. But, on the other hand, he was clearly more interested in having the discussion than winning the debate, so, points to him. The part that's the hardest to watch is all the variations of "I know this is true" "Why?" "Because the Bible says so and the Bible is true" from Ray. His absolute statement near the beginning of "I know what happened in the beginning, you don't know, but I do, in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" is...well...painful, to say the least. You also get the sense that there is one proposition that Ray will never, ever, EVER consider - maybe, just maybe, the Bible is not absolutely true. Comfort brushes aside any other scripture as drivel or evil lies, but never applies the same logic he uses to bat those aside to his own scripture. He begins with the unquestioned assumptions that God exists, it is the Christian God, that God created everything, and that the Bible is absolutely true and as long as someone is born again, they can never be wrong when reading the Bible. The other extremely painful part is in Part 7 of this playlist, when Thunderf00t describes in detail an observed instance of speciation, a ring species of salamander, well, perhaps more accurately a forked speciation event, but, regardless. Ray agrees with every part until Thunderf00t gets to the conclusion - "That's speciation." Ray then goes on to basically say "Okay, sure, there is this species of salamander, that after sufficient geological distance cannot interbreed with the two ends of the range. Sure, you can interbreed salamanders from each fork all the way back to a common salamander at the top of the fork, and the two at the end of the forks cannot interbreed. But this is not speciation. This is not evolution. It's just infertility problems. Even though they can still breed with themselves or other salamanders close to their part of the river." I wanted to scream just a bit after watching that fail of logic. I know that this kind of response happens on both ends. You feel that you are using logic and reason to its height, and whomever you're talking to is just not getting it, or accepts every step until the logical inference to the conclusion. I do feel, however, that Ray got himself into more trouble in this kind of situation, however, because Thunderf00t makes it clear that he doesn't accept at face value Ray's basic premises. That's important - if you accept Ray's premises, such as God existing and having created everything and the Bible being absolutely true, then all makes sense. But that's exactly where the atheist draws the line - show me that your premises have merits, and then we can argue about the finer points of deduction or induction. Ray utterly fails to provide any evidence to back up his basic premises.

Anywhere, here's the video. Watch it if you can stomach it:


Monday, July 20, 2009

Commemorating Apollo 11

I wanted to make a short post to commemorate today as the 40th Anniversary of the first Moon Landing. A few days ago was the anniversary of the launch, and I meant to put up something then but didn't get around to it due to being sick for a while. Anyways, recovering now, and I would ask you to take some time and browse around The Big Picture's post on the Apollo 11 mission, or go check out Phil Plait's blog for a bit of a more personal reflection. I wasn't alive at the time of the landing, unfortunately, but it's had its impact on me in other, less direct ways.

The Moon landing was an important and historic achievement, perhaps largely political in its time, but in the long view it has come to symbolize something about humanity in general - our curiosity, our outward and upward reach, our scientific and technological advances, and the general hope that pervades our species for a better world. There is something impressive about the speed with which we went from the first flight to stepping forth onto another world. Likewise, it is hard to believe that is has been close to 40 years since humans have really left Earth orbit. I hope we return soon, with forethought and a well-laid plan, and continue to press out into not just our solar system, but eventually the cosmos as a whole. In a way, we are returning to the primordial oceans that birthed us, we are going home.


Sunday, July 19, 2009

Marx’s Theory of Finance

To develop a basic, classical Marxist theory of finance; we must understand the basic profit principle of Marx: M'=M+ΔM or Money-Capital-Money'. In Marx’s mature thought, everything is built on this principle and all human economic activity is reducible to achieving M'. But, because Marx discussed his theory in terms of labor-produced goods and set labor as the only way to create profit, applying Marx to finance and especially trading becomes oblique in some ways. The reason why we must consider Marx’s perspective (and why you should continue reading this article) is that it helps us understand the difference between good finance and bad finance. But first, a short word for the anti-communists out there about the difference between Marxist thought and communism and their policy implications.

Marxist thought, at its core, is a theory of economics that described how we make profit by combining capital investments and labor. Communism is a political ideology based on the ethical and political implications of the labor abuses that this drive for profit can create. While Marx himself was certainly anti-capitalism because of these abuses, I do not believe that there is any metaphysical reason why we cannot produce profit humanely. In fact, I believe that a fully humane capitalism is possible. I will not discuss why here. I only mention this to assuage conservative readers that this is not another hate-mongering polemic on capitalism and private property.

Now, the key problem with applying Marx’s thought to finance is that finance does not produce goods in the traditional sense. They do not buy low and sell high to their investors. On top of this, the tertiary finance sector which trades in derivatives, is two steps removed from the traditional economy. Thus, Marx’s M-C- M' profit formula and fundamental motivation becomes, at best, only indirectly applicable. In the most traditional finance sector – savings and loan – the leap is relatively easy for Marx. Financiers invest (add M) for a slice of the final profits M'. This formula for motivation and economic causation however does not apply to speculative derivatives trading, collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), and other tertiary financial economic activity that has become a mainstay in our system.

Why is this such an issue and why should we care what Marx might have to say about it? First, since these tertiary activities are mainstays and they do not fall into a smooth image of how profit motives translate into real, goods and services-based profit; it is crucial that we understand how they interact with the main economy to better predict and regulate these activities. Second, Marx’s theory is very clear about the relationship between what people think, what they do, and what happens because of it. While his thought itself is very general and now analytically outdated, it is still in line with the basics of micro and macro economic theory. Thus, it offers a comparatively clear way of interpreting tertiary financial activity while not seriously violating basic economic principles.

So, what makes tertiary finance so special and un-amenable to a basic understanding of capitalist economics that we have to create a whole new interpretation of it? Capitalism, at its core, works because it adds real value to real things and earns a fair return from it. As Marx throws away talk about prices as a proxy for understanding the real value added, we too must throw away the notion that capitalism makes money simply because it gets more money than it puts in. Tertiary finance latches on to this process in a very distant way, putting money into money that is somewhere backed by real value-adding processes. These financiers make money when the money they invest produces more money. The problem is that, because the link to real value-added process is so convoluted and, adding to that, the gambling economy of short-term trading practices, the M' that traders achieve is not easily traceable to any actual value created. Hence we can have toxic assets with no way to measure their actual value.

To better understand a bit of the range of tertiary finance practices and address one of its central self-defenses, we can look at speculative derivatives trading. To keep it simple, speculative derivatives trading operates by allowing investors to put money in actual goods and the returns that investors make come from the change in value brought about by other investors and market demand for that good. For example, I invest in the derivatives equivalent of a barrel of oil at $100. Five other people invest at increments of $105, $110, and so on. I then sell my derivative at the final $130 to the sixth person. I’ve made $30 because people were willing to pay $130 for a barrel of oil. (For those of you who know the technical dimensions of derivatives, I know I’ve cut out 99% of what actually happens for the sake of simplicity). While no more value was added to the barrel I bought and then sold, I still made money. The central rationale for this among economists and free market defenders is that this process helps the process of putting an accurate value on the good being traded. In essence, the actual value of the barrel I bought was $130, but the market did not know that until I sold it and, it was only because others bought it at higher prices (the proof that the barrel was worth more than the $100 I bought it for) that I could sell it for the more accurate value.

This accurate valuation hypothesis of the role of tertiary finance can hold water theoretically under the assumption that investors will not pay more than something is worth and will buy something when it is valued less than it is worth. Here we have the disjunction with the basic logic of capitalism. Tertiary profit is made when the estimated value increases. Primary profit increases when the actual value increases (primarily through productivity increases). (Note: increased market share, or selling to more people, does not constitute an increase in profit or value, only a redistribution of existing profit in Marx’s analysis). While there are many cases when tertiary profit increase occurs because primary profit increases, there is no reason to believe that this is actually what happens without a thorough business analysis. What this means is that the tertiary sector has an incredible leeway to make money without actually producing anything of value or contributing to the overall efficiency of the market.

The current recession is not the only time in which some have claimed that the profit businesses report were not based on any value created. Compare former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich’s analysis of the 1980’s merger and acquisition bonanza with Gowan’s diagnosis of the present financial crisis. To save you some time, both argue that the large amount of profits generated were based on non-capitalist gains like artificially inflating and deflating market bubbles and taking government write-offs for merging and writing down sick companies. The lesson is that when we disconnect the capitalist motive for M' from the actual process of adding value to objects, we open ourselves up to diverting money to paper profits and a pure gambler’s game which are tangential to contributing to the production of real value.

What does this have to do with discerning good and bad finance? What I’ve implicitly argued and now explicitly state is that good finance is attached to real value, meaning that financial profit is generated by the creation of actual value. This does not necessarily mean that tertiary practices are bad, but they require much more conscientious review than primary or secondary finance (such as mutual funds, 401Ks, and the like). What is bad finance is the intentional attempt to make money by manipulating market values and disconnecting the value of a tradeable from the actual value which backs it. The CDOs that accumulated so many types of financial vehicles from so many sources that no one could trace them and that have melted our financial sector are criminally negligent at best. The second insidious form finance is that which makes profit from the loss of value. A good example of this would be predatory lending such as some forms of sub-prime mortgaging and many credit card policies. No, you cannot legislate consumers’ financial intelligence, but you cannot legitimate a business that financially generates and then profits from financial destruction. It usurps the creation of value and acts as a parasite on the capitalist system and our society as a whole.

There are two lessons that I believe can be taken away from a classical Marxist theory of finance. First, solid capitalist finance is linked to actual value. Second, finance disconnected from actual value contributes to the destructive and free-riding dimension inherent in capitalism. Though Marx’s vision of our ultimate evolution away from capitalism seems irrational now, I believe his underlying image of the economy is still useful in interpreting modern markets and capitalist enterprise and can contribute to a more ethically sound way of creating real value for our lives.


Friday, July 3, 2009

The Importance of Blogs

This is a post about how and why blogs will become an important foundation of genuine, participatory public discussion and how you, reader, can help lead the way. Basically, traffic-building strategies like search engine optimization (SEO), blog carnivals, trackback, and RSS/syndication align profit, informational value, and readership with low overhead and search costs. This means that anyone can blog, but only those who provide the most valuable information in the most easily accessible way will dominate in the long run. The "long" in long run dominance will be shortened by people like you reader as we develop more sophisticated interests in linking to blogs and, for you fellow bloggers, in learning how to build traffic.

A lot of server space is taken up by online articles, wiki-entries, and of course, blogs about the future of blogging and its role in society. One general consensus as I find it is that blogs are an unprecedented way for everyday people (not newscasters, public officials, or media stars) to have a public voice. For example, here is Technorati's stance and Scott Rosenburg's defense of bloggers against the apparently not-so-everyday journalist. Whether blogs are good for democracy is its own niche in the blogosphere and academia. There is the Habermasian Angle of free, open, and rational discussion ultimately reaching consensus and the information filtering argument in the spirit of John Stuart Mill. You should also read the blogs prompted by Arianna Huffington's debate on the issue for more complex positions. The jury will be out on this question and many others for a long time and will probably come back with mixed results like every other complex issue. However, when it comes to efficiently finding and consuming information, the blogosphere and internet as a whole has unmatched and probably unavoidable potential.

The first reason and lesson for readers, particularly you bloggers, is the fact that blogs run on traffic and traffic is created by content value. If you make valuable content, visitors will like you. If visitors like you they will come back. They will bring their friends by linking to you on their own blog, linking your blog on Facebook and MySpace, or the old fashioned word-of-mouth. This is the sage advice of bloggers' bloggers like Copyblogger and Steve Pavlina. As you may notice from the links, these are veterans' advice for turning a blog into a traffic and money-making hub. While not everyone cares about the money in blogging, those who dominate the field and their content niches do. If this is any indication of the future of blogging (and when has history not followed the money?), blogging will only create more high quality information, scale up on traffic, and become more commodified.

As an aside, the commodification of blogging opens up a whole other bag of worms that I will not get into now and that does pose some serious downsides, particularly over the medium run, and are likely to raise new questions and issues as it reshapes content on the internet.

The second dimension which both drives growth, quality content, and accessibility is the slew of traffic-building marketing tools currently used which link the traffic-quality base to integrating, content-driven marketing. Take Search Engine Optimizaiton (SEO), syndication, and blog carnivals for example.

SEO is the process of tailoring a website so that it is most easily found and visited from search engines. It can be such a technically intensive and profitable mode of traffic building that Google's own discussion revolves around hiring an SEO consultant. They do however provide a Starter's Guide (pdf). In total, SEO is a creater-side strategy which should aid search engines and reader heuristics (i.e. bookmarks, links on networking sites, feed following, etc.) to increase the overall information search efficiency among blogs. While it is not for everyone, it is but one efficiency tool.

Syndication increases visitors' ability to follow a blog's activity and return to the site and the same kind of starter information is also available. This may be one of the best ways to generate the medium term readership (those between one-time browsers and regular readers) which more fully tests a blog's content value. Additionally, social bookmarking sites like, which offer other forms of tracking, also offer another means for ranking and ordering blogs.

Lastly, blog carnivals are when a group of bloggers write posts on a certain topic and post them to a single site hosting the carnival. Not only does this provide a (rare) source of editing, they deepen personal, professional, and hyper-reference relationships between bloggers, expand readers' blog networks, and condense topical discussion to a much more localized venue.

These three tools exemplify the intrinsic link in blogging between growth, content quality, and accessibility in the realm of marketing a blog. First, these tools are cheap and accessible for those just beginning (unless you hire an SEO consultant and what self-respecting internet cowboy or cowgirl would?). Not only is it relatively easy to start a blog, but to market it. Second, these tools operate on the same logic of information organization as one of the most basic internet features: the hyperlink (I'll return to the awesomeness of this feature in another post (maybe)). Third, building hyper-reference networks through embedded images, hyperlinks, etc. transfers the status of linkers providing more cognitive and emotional meaning than any other dimension of a link. Lastly, each of these also makes the organization of information more efficient by matching content with entry point content like the text in hyperlinks or Google search results.

With the basic framework tied to traffic, content, and search efficiency; the last cornerstone is the basic economics of blogging - little overhead, low barriers to entry, and an unknown upper-limit on profits. There is little pre-startup selection meaning that everyone who wants a shot can get one. There is little natural selection, meaning that even if you're not successful, you can still do it without going broke. If you actually get the ball rolling on your blog, almost all of it is profit. Remember though that time is money and putting up a respectable blog takes a lot of it.

Lastly, how much money could be made in blogs is utterly unknown and new ways of turning readership into income are being invented everyday. (The ethics of monetizing blogs is also another major niche debate which I hope to address in another post. Lets just say for now that most strategies are at least annoying, but there are some methods that might benefit you, reader).

Blogging is an economic wild west and there's plenty of room for everyone right now to make some money and for some to potentially make an unimaginable figure based on high quality content and readership. In my opinion, the economic incentives are aligned to make blogging a crucial source for the public imagination, education, and discussion. We're not there yet and will not be there for probably another decade (in which time we'll figure out better ways to organize information on the internet, develop better-quality information, scale up blog production, and see more centralization of blog readership at the same time that readership grows exponentially).

The question and challenge for you reader is one, whether you care (and, if you've gotten this far, probably do); two, how can you do your part to help us all bring rule to this wild west; and three, to create the next generation of blogs. For those of us who are not full time bloggers or have hopes of being one, start tagging and linking to blogs you know and like. Put them in your RSS reader or Twitter them. Make it easier for others and yourself to find them. Also, as we all know you're good at, rain the criticism down. Make sure no bad content goes unpunished and no good content goes unmentioned. For those who are thinking of trying to live on blogging, I dare you to go beyond the achievements of the many great bloggers today, start finding the upper limit of readership and profit, and push. Since money, readership, and content are so intertwined in blogging, pushing the limits will open the doors to a bigger, better blogosphere; not immune to corruption, but subject to a much sharper "bend towards Justice."


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You stupids!