What’s the harm with “alternative medicine”? Read on…

This article appeared today on the Live Science website. It’s a good reminder that there is no such thing as “Alternative Medicine.” If it actually worked it would just be “Medicine.”

But, more disturbingly, it reveals the real danger that some forms of such quackery can cause – even death.


By Christopher Wanjek, Live Science’s Bad Medicine Columnist

Posted Sept. 1, 2010

When is a sugar pill deadly? When it is substituted for real medicine, the Japanese public has come to understand.

The Japanese government is investigating numerous deaths that occurred over the past year resulting from the practice of homeopathy, which has been growing in popularity, particularly among midwives. Several lawsuits are pending.

Deaths include a 2-month-old baby girl born with a vitamin K deficiency, whose mother’s midwife administered a homeopathic treatment instead of the much-needed vitamin K injection, well-known to prevent hemorrhaging. The infant died from bleeding in the skull.

As more cases surface, the nation’s top science group, the Science Council of Japan, has weighed in, with its president, Ichiro Kanazawa, stating at a press conference on Aug. 24 that “homeopathy’s therapeutic value has been scientifically and utterly disproved.” Homeopathy treatments are nothing more than sugar pills, he said.

Japan may soon join Switzerland and Germany, where governments have concluded that homeopathy is ineffective; national health insurance no longer reimburses for homeopathic treatments there. (Ironically, homeopathy originated in Germany 200 years ago.)

Other European nations might follow suit, too. After a scathing report on homeopathy by the U.K. House of Commons Science and Technology Committee in February 2010, the British Medical Association this August called upon the U.K. National Health Service to refuse payments for homeopathy, to eliminate funding for homeopathic hospitals, and to otherwise instruct doctors to not prescribe, refer, or recommend homeopathy to patients.

Natural or supernatural

Is this big medicine beating up the little herbal practitioner? Not at all. The biggest misconception is that homeopathy is herbal medicine. Herbs have therapeutic value. Homeopathy, however, is devoid of herbs or anything medicinal.

Homeopathic medicines might start with an herb or mineral. Oscillococcinum, the top homeopathic flu remedy, starts with duck liver. Remedies are diluted in 10- or 100-parts water over and over again, based on centuries’ old recipes, until there is no longer any original ingredient.

So, the second biggest misconception is that homeopathic pills contain minute concentrations of medicine. Often the news media use the words “highly diluted” when in fact homeopathy is just highly delusional.

Oscillococcinum, for example, has a 200C concentration: One part duck offal was mixed with 100 (“C”) parts water; this dilution was added to more water at a 1-to-100 ratio; and the process was repeated another 199 times. In the end, there is one part duck in 100 to the 200th power (or 1 followed by 400 zeroes) parts water.

You are left with simply water. Even the more “concentrated” homeopathic medicines — 24X, or 10 to the 24th parts water— amount to a pinch of medicine sprinkled in the Atlantic Ocean.

Homeopathic practitioners don’t deny this little discord with physics. Homeopathy was developed before the troublesome concepts of atoms and molecules. The argument now is that the homeopathic solutions coated upon sugar pills remember the shape of the medicine they once contained.

Alas, this too violates reality. A water molecule’s shape is distorted by other molecules for mere picoseconds before settling back to normal; there’s no water memory. If this were the case, all water on the planet would be a homeopathic treatment for every ailment, because it once touched every herb, mineral, or animal liver in the homeopathy canon.

You have a homeopathic treatment for food poisoning (arsenic at 24X) coming out of your faucet, provided you cut it a few times with pure water.

Proof or placebo

Plenty of studies show how homeopathy can work; many show how prayer or psychic distance healing can work, too. Homeopathy is rather effective for ailments that go away on their own, such as diarrhea and colds.

As documented in the February House of Commons report, homeopathy is shown to be less and less effective as studies get better and better. This same sentiment has been supported by thorough analyses by doctors in Switzerland and Germany and, for that matter, by the U.S. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, once led by a homeopath, which concludes there’s little evidence to support homeopathy for anything.

Unlike many other fields of alternative medicine, dominated by quacks and frauds, homeopathy tends to attract intelligent health practitioners who truly believe in the efficacy of the treatments. Maybe homeopathy is an effective placebo. In that case, if you want the sugar pills to work, forget you read this article.

But please, don’t trust homeopathy for your baby.


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Last rhino at a S.A. reserve killed for “Traditional Chinese Medicine”

I must confess that I usually just grow weary when I hear of yet another example of people using bogus ‘Alternative Medicine” treatments.

This time, I am angry.

I hope people who promote these pseudo treatments read this story and stop and think. This article appeared in the Toronto Star.

Warning: The picture below is gruesome, but it highlights the harm that superstition and quakery can do.

South African reserve’s last rhino butchered for her horn
Published On Thu Aug 05 2010
A rhinoceros lies dead after being killed at Krugersdorp Nature Reserve outside Johannesburg July 14, 2010. Booming demand from increasingly rich Asian markets has led to a spike in rhino poaching in South Africa this year, officials say.A rhinoceros lies dead after being killed at Krugersdorp Nature Reserve outside Johannesburg July 14, 2010. Booming demand from increasingly rich Asian markets has led to a spike in rhino poaching in South Africa this year, officials say



Lesley Ciarula Taylor Staff Reporter

Poachers have butchered the last adult rhinoceros at a South African game reserve, cutting off her horn and letting her bleed to death, the chief game ranger says.

“We’ve had rhinos here for 20 years,” Japie Mostert told the Star on Thursday from the Krugersdorp Game Reserve, 60 kilometres northwest of Johannesburg. “She was the last one.”

The nine-year-old rhino at the 1,400-hectare reserve was likely attacked by poachers who hovered in a helicopter, shot her with a tranquillizer dart then leapt out and sliced her horn off with a chainsaw, Mostert said.

“The whole operation would take seven to 10 minutes.”

The animal’s female calf had been killed by poachers in January; her nine-month-old male calf was taken to a different reserve for sanctuary after the killing on July 14, he said.

It would take “a guard working day and night” to protect the rhinoceroses, which are being slaughtered at a record rate across South Africa, he said.

Rhino horn has been used for centuries in Traditional Chinese Medicine, although tests reported by National Geographic have shown that it has no special properties and is similar to a fingernail.

More than 90 rhinos have been killed in South Africa this year, compared with 122 in all of 2009, said David Mabunda, chief executive officer for the South Africa National Parks. Only 13 rhinos were poached in 2007.

Ninety per cent of the world’s rhinos have been slaughtered in the last 40 years to feed the illegal horn trade in China and Vietnam.

Poachers can get more per ounce for rhino horns than for gold.

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Are you an a-zeusist?

Here’s a great article from Sam Harris, which I have re-posted from The Huffington Post.

It’s five years old, but the logic is still solid. Especially in light of the recent tragedy in Haiti.

What do you think of his logic and conclusion?

Sam Harris

Sam Harris

Posted: October 6, 2005 04:31 PM

Somewhere in the world a man has abducted a little girl. Soon he will rape, torture, and kill her. If an atrocity of this kind not occurring at precisely this moment, it will happen in a few hours, or days at most. Such is the confidence we can draw from the statistical laws that govern the lives of six billion human beings. The same statistics also suggest that this girl’s parents believe — at this very moment — that an all-powerful and all-loving God is watching over them and their family. Are they right to believe this? Is it good that they believe this?


The entirety of atheism is contained in this response. Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply a refusal to deny the obvious. Unfortunately, we live in a world in which the obvious is overlooked as a matter of principle. The obvious must be observed and re-observed and argued for. This is a thankless job. It carries with it an aura of petulance and insensitivity. It is, moreover, a job that the atheist does not want.

It is worth noting that no one ever need identify himself as a non-astrologer or a non-alchemist. Consequently, we do not have words for people who deny the validity of these pseudo-disciplines. Likewise, “atheism” is a term that should not even exist. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make when in the presence of religious dogma. The atheist is merely a person who believes that the 260 million Americans (eighty-seven percent of the population) who claim to “never doubt the existence of God” should be obliged to present evidence for his existence — and, indeed, for his benevolence, given the relentless destruction of innocent human beings we witness in the world each day. Only the atheist appreciates just how uncanny our situation is: most of us believe in a God that is every bit as specious as the gods of Mount Olympus; no person, whatever his or her qualifications, can seek public office in the United States without pretending to be certain that such a God exists; and much of what passes for public policy in our country conforms to religious taboos and superstitions appropriate to a medieval theocracy. Our circumstance is abject, indefensible, and terrifying. It would be hilarious if the stakes were not so high.

Consider: the city of New Orleans was recently destroyed by hurricane Katrina. At least a thousand people died, tens of thousands lost all their earthly possessions, and over a million have been displaced. It is safe to say that almost every person living in New Orleans at the moment Katrina struck believed in an omnipotent, omniscient, and compassionate God. But what was God doing while a hurricane laid waste to their city? Surely He heard the prayers of those elderly men and women who fled the rising waters for the safety of their attics, only to be slowly drowned there. These were people of faith. These were good men and women who had prayed throughout their lives. Only the atheist has the courage to admit the obvious: these poor people spent their lives in the company of an imaginary friend.

Of course, there had been ample warning that a storm “of biblical proportions” would strike New Orleans, and the human response to the ensuing disaster was tragically inept. But it was inept only by the light of science. Advance warning of Katrina’s path was wrested from mute Nature by meteorological calculations and satellite imagery. God told no one of his plans. Had the residents of New Orleans been content to rely on the beneficence of the Lord, they wouldn’t have known that a killer hurricane was bearing down upon them until they felt the first gusts of wind on their faces. And yet, a poll conducted by The Washington Post found that eighty percent of Katrina’s survivors claim that the event has only strengthened their faith in God.

As hurricane Katrina was devouring New Orleans, nearly a thousand Shiite pilgrims were trampled to death on a bridge in Iraq. There can be no doubt that these pilgrims believed mightily in the God of the Koran. Indeed, their lives were organized around the indisputable fact of his existence: their women walked veiled before him; their men regularly murdered one another over rival interpretations of his word. It would be remarkable if a single survivor of this tragedy lost his faith. More likely, the survivors imagine that they were spared through God’s grace.

Only the atheist recognizes the boundless narcissism and self-deceit of the saved. Only the atheist realizes how morally objectionable it is for survivors of a catastrophe to believe themselves spared by a loving God, while this same God drowned infants in their cribs. Because he refuses to cloak the reality of the world’s suffering in a cloying fantasy of eternal life, the atheist feels in his bones just how precious life is — and, indeed, how unfortunate it is that millions of human beings suffer the most harrowing abridgements of their happiness for no good reason at all.

Of course, people of faith regularly assure one another that God is not responsible for human suffering. But how else can we understand the claim that God is both omniscient and omnipotent? There is no other way, and it is time for sane human beings to own up to this. This is the age-old problem of theodicy, of course, and we should consider it solved. If God exists, either He can do nothing to stop the most egregious calamities, or He does not care to. God, therefore, is either impotent or evil. Pious readers will now execute the following pirouette: God cannot be judged by merely human standards of morality. But, of course, human standards of morality are precisely what the faithful use to establish God’s goodness in the first place. And any God who could concern himself with something as trivial as gay marriage, or the name by which he is addressed in prayer, is not as inscrutable as all that. If He exists, the God of Abraham is not merely unworthy of the immensity of creation; he is unworthy even of man.

There is another possibility, of course, and it is both the most reasonable and least odious: the biblical God is a fiction. As Richard Dawkins has observed, we are all atheists with respect to Zeus and Thor. Only the atheist has realized that the biblical god is no different. Consequently, only the atheist is compassionate enough to take the profundity of the world’s suffering at face value. It is terrible that we all die and lose everything we love; it is doubly terrible that so many human beings suffer needlessly while alive. That so much of this suffering can be directly attributed to religion — to religious hatreds, religious wars, religious delusions, and religious diversions of scarce resources — is what makes atheism a moral and intellectual necessity. It is a necessity, however, that places the atheist at the margins of society. The atheist, by merely being in touch with reality, appears shamefully out of touch with the fantasy life of his neighbors.


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Why Morality Doesn’t Need God

I’ve reprinted below a thoughtful article by Tim Dean, published on May 27, 2010 on the Australian Broadcast Company’s web site, The Drum. Good food for thought.

Why morality doesn’t need God

“If God is not, everything is permitted.” Or so they say. Except they’re wrong. Dangerously so.

This dictum – that without some absolute divine authority, then morality is at best arbitrary, at worst, annihilated – is unsheathed and bandied about all-too-often these days.

Recently, it’s reared its seditious head in response to the trial of an ethics-based complement to scripture in NSW. The church has pulled out all the stops to block the ethics class, and one of the reasons posed is that ethics without God is hollow, that teaching secular ethics is like teaching English without books, maths without numbers, science without observation.

But the notion that God is required in order for morality to have any real clout is demonstrably false. In fact, if you want a comprehensive, robust and flexible ethics that can address the problems we face today, then you need to explicitly look for a morality without God.

This is because the subject matter of morality is very much grounded in the real world: morality deals with real people, real issues and has to navigate real conflicts. And the real world is a complicated place where not everything is as it seems. One of our best tools for understanding the real world is the humble question “why.” But often you have to ask “why” more than once to get to the answer.

Why is the bus late? Why did the driver not leave on time? Why wasn’t his bus ready for him at the depot? Why is the NSW government still in power? And so on.

To get to your answer, you need to be able to ask “why” as many times as necessary – at least until you exhaust all possible evidence (as in the scientific process) or all possible reason (as in the philosophical process).

But religion stifles this process, with dangerous consequences. This is because religion, by its very nature (no pun intended), is grounded in the supernatural. Its teachings hinge on belief in beings, forces or realms that cannot be seen, felt or known without resorting to faith.

This means that when trying to understand the world from a religious perspective, you can only ask “why” so many times before you hit the brick wall of the supernatural. There’s a point where the answer to your last “why” is simply “because God/the Bible/the Space Fairies said so”. And if you’re not happy with that answer, tough. You just lack faith.

Unfortunately, when it comes to constructing a robust and reliable morality, the supernaturalist approach is horribly prone to error. One belief held dogmatically on supernatural grounds can yield moral outcomes that end up causing untold harm, such as the Catholic prohibition on contraception, for but one example.

That’s not to say a secular approach isn’t also prone to error. But, the big difference – the difference that really counts – is that the secular approach is always open to scrutiny. It always allows for others to ask “why” about any of its moral prescriptions. And, as such, it is open to revision in light of new evidence or new arguments, and it’s more easily able to correct its errors.

The suggestion that we need some supernatural authority to compel us to obey the moral law – well, that’s also bunk.

This is because morality – whether it’s justified by reason, nature or the divine – is, and always has been, believed, doubted and argued by everyone. Even the most dogmatic religion has experts – anointed or appointed – who debate the interpretation of the scriptures. And practitioners of even the most dogmatic religions are known to stray from the path, only to be guided back, by carrot or stick, by their peers.

The same is true of secular morality. The reason we behave morally is partly psychological, partly ideological and partly through desire for praise and fear of punishment. Whether the ideology is backed up by some supernatural power makes no difference in practice to whether the morality is persuasive or not; non-supernatural forces can be terribly persuasive, just ask Fergie.

Ultimately, the argument that ‘without God, anything goes’ is just plain false. There might be other reasons to question secular morality, or to support religion, but let it not be that morality requires God. It doesn’t. Morality will only be stronger and better able to deal with the pressing problems that we all face if it is free to question the world and itself. That kind of ethics ought be taught in school.

To not do so would be, well, immoral.

Tim Dean is a science journalist and philosophy PhD student

.Tim  Dean

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Tough To Watch; Important to Watch

I saw this video a few minutes ago. It’s a moving, disturbing, anger-provoking piece. I hope you’ll watch it.

The young woman who wrote and narrates the poem, Nessrriinn, is an ex-muslim. You can find her YouTube channel at http://www.youtube.com/user/Nessrriinn

I encourage you to pass the video along. I’ve included the words of the poem below the video.

sharia law
she’s buried chest high
her arms can’t stop the stones that fly
or wipe the tears that have already dried
for a crime she so persistently denied
she’s buried chest deep
the moderates asleep
no matter how hard she weeps
worth half of a man, her testimony’s cheap
Allah subhana wa ta3ala has come up with such a fair rule
dictators of history couldn’t be so cruel
told by mohammed sallahu 3alhe wa salam
teaching us allah’s divine referendum
what becomes of those who have a sip of rum
drinks to forget or wants to be numb
or those who play the game of chance
poker buddies escaping the religious trance
allah’s prescribed in his merciful script
their flesh be ripped their blood be dripped
at the tip of a muslims whip
she’s buried chest high
her arms can’t stop the stones that fly
or wipe the tears that have already dried
for a crime she so persistently denied
and this is allah’s eternal reply
1400 years of backwards law
a tragic flaw of the primitive claw
the tribe of homosexuals
koum lot as they say
sharia is clear on how they should pay
the price for their gay display
life doesn’t matter which way
abu baker got them with a tumbling wall
ali muhammad’s cousin and son in law
had people burned for their sexual call
an entire village children and all
she’s buried chest deep
the moderates asleep
no matter how hard she weeps
worth half of a manher testimony’s cheap
apostates remember those who have bled
to speak the word Muslims leave unsaid
killed for the sake of those mislead
submit now or be left dead
allah subhana wa ta3ala has come up with such a fair rule
the devil himself couldn’t be so cruel
she’s buried chest high half way deep
while the moderates are still fast asleep
while the world stands silent
her testimony’s cheap.
stones thrown by religious sheep.
witches were burned long ago
til the flame of freedom began to glow
and we learned to say the word ‘no’
no know that your laws are unjust
not worthy of respect only disgust
beheading those with a knifes thrust
oh but in Allah we blindly trust
she’s buried head high
in a heap of stones.
no more crying no more moans
all that’s left is skin and bones
Allah has come up with such a fair call
the true justice of sharia law
by nessrriinn.


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Listen Up! – My Recent Debate on Air Concerning the Pope and the Paedophilic Scandal

Hi again. A few weeks ago, I appeared on John Oakley’s segment, “The Culture Wars” on AM640 in Toronto. It was definitely a “spirited” debate. I hope you enjoy the recording and I’m very interested in your responses.


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You’re such a Neanderthal!

It turns out that that statement is probably true of the person whom you so labeled.

And it’s probably true of you too! Awesome.

Here’s the story, as told by National Geographic.

A reconstruction of a Neanderthal female.

A Neanderthal-female reconstruction based on both fossil anatomy and DNA (file photo).

Photograph by Joe McNally, National Geographic


Inside of the Vindija cave, Croatia. Image courtesy of Johannes  Krause MPI-EVACroatia’s Vindija cave, where Neanderthal bones used to assemble genome were found. Image courtesy of Johannes Krause MPI-EVA.

Ker Than

Published May 6, 2010

The next time you’re tempted to call some oaf a Neanderthal, you might want to take a look in the mirror.

According to a new DNA study, most humans have a little Neanderthal in them—at least 1 to 4 percent of a person’s genetic makeup.

The study uncovered the first solid genetic evidence that “modern” humans—or Homo sapiens—interbred with their Neanderthal neighbors, who mysteriously died out about 30,000 years ago.

What’s more, the Neanderthal-modern human mating apparently took place in the Middle East, shortly after modern humans had left Africa, not in Europe—as has long been suspected.

“We can now say that, in all probability, there was gene flow from Neanderthals to modern humans,” lead study author Ed Green of the University of California, Santa Cruz, said in a prepared statement.

That’s no surprise to anthropologist Erik Trinkhaus, whose skeleton-based claims of Neanderthal-modern human interbreeding—previously contradicted with DNA evidence—appear to have been vindicated by the new gene study, to be published tomorrow in the journal Science.

“They’ve finally seen the light … because it’s been obvious to many us that this happened,” said Trinkaus, of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, who wasn’t part of the new study.

Trinkhaus adds that most living humans probably have much more Neanderthal DNA than the new study suggests.

“One to 4 percent is truly a minimum,” Trinkaus added. “But is it 10 percent? Twenty percent? I have no idea.”

Surprising Spot for Neanderthal-Human Mating

The genetic study team reached their conclusion after comparing the genomes of five living humans—from China, France, Papua New Guinea, southern Africa, and western Africa—against the available “rough draft” of the Neanderthal genome.

The results showed that Neanderthal DNA is 99.7 percent identical to modern human DNA, versus, for example, 98.8 percent for modern humans and chimps, according to the study. (Related: “Neanderthals Had Same ‘Language Gene’ as Modern Humans.”)

In addition, all modern ethnic groups, other than Africans, carry traces of Neanderthal DNA in their genomes, the study says—which at first puzzled the scientists. Though no fossil evidence has been found for Neanderthals and modern humans coexisting in Africa, Neanderthals, like modern humans, are thought to have arisen on the continent.

“If you told an archaeologist that you’d found evidence of gene exchange between Neanderthals and modern humans and asked them to guess which [living] population it was found in, most would say Europeans, because there’s well documented archaeological evidence that they lived side by side for several thousand years,” said study team member David Reich.

For another thing, Neanderthals never lived in China or Papua New Guinea, in the Pacific region of Melanesia, according to the archaeological record.

“But the fact is that Chinese and Melanesians are as closely related to Neanderthals” as Europeans, said Reich, a population geneticist at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard University.

Neanderthal-Human One-Night Stand?

So how did modern humans with Neanderthal DNA end up in Asia and Melanesia?

Neanderthals, the study team says, probably mixed with early Homo sapiens just after they’d left Africa but before Homo sapiens split into different ethnic groups and scattered around the globe.

The first opportunity for interbreeding probably occurred about 60,000 years ago in Middle Eastern regions adjacent to Africa, where archaeological evidence shows the two species overlapped for a time, the team says.

And it wouldn’t have taken much mating to make an impact, according to study co-author Reich. The results could stem from a Neanderthal-modern human one-night stand or from thousands of interspecies assignations, he said.

More DNA Evidence for Neanderthal-Human Mating

The new study isn’t alone in finding genetic hints of Homo sapiens-Homo neanderthalensis interbreeding.

Genetic anthropologist Jeffrey Long, who calls the Science study “very exciting,” co-authored a new, not yet published study that found DNA evidence of interbreeding between early modern humans and an “archaic human” species, though it’s not clear which. He presented his team’s findings at a meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists in Albuquerque, New Mexico, last month.

Long’s team reached its conclusions after searching the genomes of hundreds of modern humans for “signatures of different evolutionary processes in DNA variation.”

Like the new Science paper, Long’s study speculates that interbreeding occurred just after our species had left Africa, but Long’s study didn’t include analysis of the Neanderthal genome.

“At the time we started the project, I never imagined I’d ever see an empirical confirmation of it,” said Long, referring to the Science team’s Neanderthal-DNA evidence, “so I’m pretty happy to see it.”

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