Apr 18

Michael Shermer and the Witch Theory of Causality in The Moral Arc

Recently well known skeptic Michael Shermer did a book tour in Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands to promote his new book, The Moral Arc, How science and reason lead humanity toward truth, justice, and freedom. I had the opportunity to interview him about his book for Skepter, the magazine of the Dutch skeptics foundation Skepsis.  Shermer is founder and executive director of the Skeptics Society, a California based skeptic organization. He is also Editor in Chief of Skeptic and has written numerous books on a broad spectrum of subjects. In his last book he brings a positive message: humanity is morally doing better and better especially since the Age of Enlightenment. And, he claims, science is a important factor which drives this moral progress.

The interview has now appeared in Skepter in Dutch and I don’t think there will be a translation any time soon. Also because already quite some blogs,reviews and interviews with Shermer in English have appeared in the recent weeks on the web and there are not a lot of points in my Dutch article which haven’t been touched by others as well. Though there are still some issues I raised with Shermer which didn’t make the article and which I think are worth mentioning.

Witch theory of causality

Chapter three of the book (‘Why Science and Reason Are the Drivers of Moral Progress’) starts with some comical depictions of the persecution of people accused of doing witchcraft which once was commonplace in Europa. Shermer on our changed views on witches (quotes from several pages) :

Compressed into these comedic vignettes are centuries of intellectual advancement, from the medieval worldview of magic and superstition to the modern age of reason and science. It is evident that most of what we think of as our medieval ancestors’ barbaric practices were based on mistaken beliefs about how the laws of nature actually operate. If you—and everyone around you, including ecclesiastical and political authorities—truly believe that witches cause disease, crop failures, sickness, catastrophes, and accidents, then it is not only a rational act to burn witches, it is also a moral duty.

[…]

Nowadays, science has all of these problems covered. We know that crops can fail due to disease, which we study through the science of agronomy and the etiology of disease; or they fail due to insects that we can investigate through the science of entomology and further control through chemistry; or they fail due to inclement weather that we can understand through the science of meteorology.

[…]

But given the fact that Europeans and Americans abandoned their belief in witches when science supplanted superstition as a better explanation for evil (and it was outlawed), the generous assessment is that these witch-hunters are merely misinformed. In short, they hold a wrong theory of causality.

So I got the impression that Shermer wants to tell us that the persecution of alleged witches stopped (in Europe and the States at least) because our ancestors found out better explanations for unfortunate events, based on science. However a bit further in the same chapter we get a far more concrete reason for why people accused of being witches stopped getting burned at the stake. Shermer retells a story from Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds by Charles MacKay in which the Duke of Brunswick demonstrates two important Jesuits (who believe in witchcraft and in torture as a means of getting genuine trustworthy information) that he can get a woman to confess whatever he wants under torture. People will say anything to stop the pain. Shermer again:

One of these Jesuits was Friedrich Spee, who in response to this shocking display of induced false confessions published a book in 1631 called Cautio Criminalis, which exposed the horrors of the torturous witch trials. This led the archbishop and elector of Menz, Schonbrunn, to abolish torture entirely, which in turn led to the abolition of torture for witchcraft elsewhere

In my interview with Shermer I asked him whether it was not in the first place this insight that torture was a useless tool to find out the truth that stopped these witch hunts rather than the development of better, scientific explanations for the misdoings of which they were accused. It might as well be that people continued to believe in witches as a cause, but had now become aware that there was no reliable way to find out who those witches were. Shermer seemed to agree to this somewhat:

OK, but even then, the idea that if we torture people we get accurate information, that’s a false idea. That’s not true. We now know it’s not true and people who think it’s true have been watching to many tv shows in which the guy has the right perpetrator, the perpetrator knows where the bomb is and if I torture him just the right way he will give us accurate information. (24!: Jack Bauer is gonna torture the bad guy, he knows where the bomb is! )

[ …]

With the witch thing, it’s a dual thing. Part of that is that torturing people and killing them doesn’t work. It isn’t a good idea, it doesn’t deter crime, it doesn’t make society better. That’s a theological idea, a religous idea. Punishing somebody for doing bad. A more sophisticated, rationa idea is to see if we can disincentize them from doing it again. Sensitize them to be better citizens, lower the rates of crime and homicide. And that’s better for everyone. That’s what we’ve been doing for centuries and it works.

[..]

I call all of that science. In the sense that you are reasoning, you’re collecting data, you’re looking at evidence, you’re deducing principles, you’re debating what we should do next about this.

OK, if you want to broaden ‘science’ to rational thinking in general, the argument that the persecution of witches stopped because of ‘science’ is valid. But that weakens the idea that abolisment of the witch theory of causality was driven by scientific progress as you would normally define it.

On this matter I didn’t find Shermer really convincing, but with such a book dealing with an enormous amount of issues, of course you’ll find something which did not quite hit the nail. On the whole I think The Moral Arc is a quite an interesting book. Shermer really gives great care looking for arguments and counter arguments. And in most cases the data presented supports his view that we are indeed living in the most moral period of our known history.

Me interviewing Michael Shermer (photo: Bas Uterwijk)

Me interviewing Michael Shermer (photo: Bas Uterwijk)

Mar 14

The Proof in Bardens vs. Lanka – Measles in Court

The news is all over the web now: a German court has ordered virologist Stefan Lanka to pay the 100,000 euros he promised to anyone who could prove that the measles virus exists. German doctor David Bardens decided to take Lanka to court as he didn’t want to send Bardens the money. Bardens had sent Lanka a number of scientific articles which according to Bardens meet the challenge. I was curious to find out which articles Bardens thinks provide the evidence, eventually I’ve found the list in an article written by his adversary.

Masernvirus in Vero-Zellen

Measles virus.(Paramyxoviren). Source:Hans R. Gelderblom, Freya Kaulbars. Coloring: Andrea Schnartendorff/RKI

In April last year the court in Ravensburg appointed an expert to judge the evidence provided by  Bardens. The expert of choice was professor  Andreas Podbielski, director of the Institut für Medizinische Mikrobiologie, Virologie und Hygiene, university of Rostock. In his opinion the six articles in question prove the existence of the measles virus beyond any reasonable doubt.

The position of Lanka seems even more extreme than that of ‘regular’ anti-vaxxers. He denies that viruses can cause diseases and in his view the massive amount of scientific evidence published doesn’t meet the level of evidence he demands. As Steven Novella writes it isn’t that easy to give a direct, simple prove for the existence of viruses and to show that they cause the symptoms by which we have always identified the disease:

The existence of viruses is also largely determined through inference. Most viruses are too small to see even through a microscope, and they can’t be easily grown in a dish like bacteria. Viruses are identified through isolating antibodies to them, isolating viral proteins, demonstrating biochemical activity, demonstrating disease activity, and eventually taking electron micrographs of viral particles. Taken together this evidence can be absolutely definitive, but the denier can continue to argue that the evidence is all indirect or mistaken.

and

When you are dealing with something too small to see directly, or a process that is very slow or occurred in the past, we rarely have a single smoking gun that by itself establishes the reality of the phenomenon. Instead, the science is built upon a large body of evidence, direct, indirect, and inferential. In the case of measles, perhaps the ultimate test was the measles vaccine, which clearly works. If measles were a myth, then a vaccine would have been frustratingly impossible to develop.

It is no wonder that Bardens couldn’t suffice with sending Lanka a single scientific paper. According to the reports about the court case, he had sent six, but none of the reports mention which those are. Eventually I found the list in an article by Lanka in his own magazine Wissenschaftplus (pdf), of course accompanied by Lanka’s comments.

These are the articles:

  1. Enders JF, Peebles TC. Propagation in tissue cultures of cytopathogenic agents from patients with measles. Proc Soc Exp Biol Med. 1954 Jun;86(2):277–286.
  2. Bech V, Magnus Pv. Studies on measles virus in monkey kidney tissue cultures. Acta Pathol Microbiol Scand. 1959; 42(1): 75–85
  3. Horikami SM, Moyer SA. Structure, Transcription, and Replication of Measles Virus. Curr Top Microbiol Immunol. 1995; 191: 35–50.
  4. Nakai M, Imagawa DT. Electron microscopy of measels virus replication. J Virol. 1969 Feb; 3(2): 187–97.
  5. Lund GA, Tyrell, DL, Bradley RD, Scraba DG. The molecular length of measles virus RNA and the structural organization of measles nucleocapsids. J Gen Virol. 1984 Sep;65 (Pt 9):1535–42.
  6. Daikoku E, Morita C, Kohno T, Sano K. Analysis of Morphology and Infectivity of Measles Virus Particles. Bulletin of the Osaka Medical College. 2007; 53(2): 107–14.

In the court room Podbielski told the judge that in his opinion these six articles are good enough as proof, but that even more convincing articles could have been provided. Lanka has appealed, so the discussion about what (scientific) evidence actually is in this case will probably return in more detail in the higher court(s) as Lanka doesn’t seem to give up that easily.

NB the commentary of Lanka on those articles is in German , so not all visitors might be able to read that. Maybe I’ll give a summary in English later on.

Jan 25

‘Iceman’ Wim Hof over the top

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Dutchman Wim Hof aka ‘The Iceman’ did it again. He adds another world record to his list of already 20-something achieved records by climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in what is supposed to be the “fastest group ascending world’s highest volcano”. In 31 hours and 25 minutes the group of inexperienced climbers led by Hof reached the top of the highest mountain of Africa, almost 6.000 meters above sea level. Will this achievement silence Hof’s critics who said that it would be irresponsible to climb this fast because of the high risk of getting altitude sickness?

Mt. Kilimanjaro, view from Moshi ,Tanzania (via Wikimedia Commons)

Mt. Kilimanjaro, view from Moshi ,Tanzania (via Wikimedia Commons)

The performance of the group has gotten some media attention outside The Netherlands as well. The Mirror reports: “Iceman wins 26th world record as he runs up Mount Kilimanjaro in just 31 hours and 26 minutes“. But let’s have a closer look on what Hof actually achieved this time. The press release on his blog gives the following information:

‘Iceman’ Wim Hof started his climb to the summit (5895 meters) of Kilimanjaro on the 14th of January 2015 with a group of 18 trained people, without any actual climbing experience. He reached the summit of Gilmans point, on the highest mountain in Africa, within 31 hours and 25 minutes. The group walked up to Kibo hut in just shorts and bare torso.

A press release in Dutch which was spread via ANP Pers Support gives a bit more detail (translation by me):

Wim Hof and the group of pioneers started on January 14th at an altitude of 1,800m. From here the marched on to a camp at 3,700m. The stayed there during the night and went on early in the morning to break through to the top at 5,685m (Gilman’s Point). This tempo would normally not have been possible because of the acclimatisation time used to prevent altitude sickness.

But wait a second … Gilman’s Point? That’s not the actual summit of the Kilimanjaro, is it, Wim Hof?

twitter Wim Hof Uhuru Peak Gilman Point

[Me: “Hey, @Iceman_Hof, did you reach ‘only’ to Gilman’s Point, or even to the real summit, Uhuru Peak?”  – He: “@pjvanerp Uhuru Peak is ‘just’ at 1.5 hrs distance. Safety chosen above Ego. Without altitude sickness, 31 hrs. Top achievement by the group]

Read the rest of this entry »

Nov 05

Top Level Homeopaths Behind Ebola Mission in Liberia

The ultra brief summary of this post might be: ‘Honorary consul of Liberia in Germany arranges homeopathic mission from the Liga Medicorum Homeopathica Internationalis (LMHI) to Liberia to find homeopathic cure for ebola.’

Homeopaths Removing their Tracks

In my previous post “Homeopaths in Liberia: ‘Mission Ebola‘” I identified the four homeopaths who are (now) in Liberia. They are Richard Hiltner (US), Edouard Broussalian (Switzerland), Medha Durge (India) and Ortrud Lindemann (Germany, living in Spain). They are all classical homeopaths but were also educated as doctors in real medicine, how odd that may seem. Hiltner even has more strange hobbies like iridiology and medical astrology. This is not the type of doctor you would want to help you out with such a serious problem as ebola.

The most interesting sources of information have been deleted by now, so it is clear the homeopaths think they have something to hide. But of course there are archived versions. The sources which give details which enable us to connect the dots are:

I’ve updated my post a few times, but now it’s time for a more elobarate update, because things are getting more and more clear.

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Oct 25

Homeopaths in Liberia: ‘Mission Ebola’

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In the last few months we encountered some homeopaths with extremely weird ideas for treating ebola. ‘Normal’ not working homeopathy and even diluted violin music or white noise. Now there seem to be at least four who are trying to put their illusionary treatments to work in Western Africa. On the website ‘Spirit, Science & Healing’ homeopath and Huffington Post columnist Larry Malerba wrote a message on 21 october: ‘Update: Team in Liberia Using Homeopathy for Ebola.’ Of course this astonishing news was picked up on Twitter and Facebook, resulting in many reactions of disbelief. The message was removed soon after. But to make things disappear from the Web is quite hard. Further digging into this story learns that we probably should take this endeavour very seriously indeed.

HomeopathsLiberiaEbola

The blog which was deleted can still be found on an online archive

The blog is still in the Google cache and now also on archive.today. Four homeopathic doctors,  dr. Richard Hiltner (US), dr. Edouard Broussalian (Switzerland), dr. Medha Durge (India) and dr. Ortrud Lindemann (Germany), are part of this team. It might look like a big bluff when you read it at first. Who can imagine that these people might actually get access to ebola patients and will be allowed to ‘treat’ them with sugar pills and drops?

Broussalian was a familiar name to me, he had been conducting some ‘research’ during a cholera epidemic on Haiti. This story is documented in ‘Spectrum of Homeopathy‘ (Nr 2. 2011) a magazine by publisher Narayana Verlag from Germany. His methods are extremely dubious. Broussalian and his team were apparently allowed to help treat the cholera patients. Those patients were treated with regular methods, mainly a drip.  But Broussalian also gave them the homeopatic remedy Phosphorus 200C from a spray flacon. In their strange working minds the homeopaths addressed all success of the recovery of the patients to this remedy in stead of to the regular treatment. At the end of the article is this ominous sentence:

At the end of our stay, we were no longer providing new patients with an infusion, but immediately gave them the phosphorus spray.

There is nothing in the article on the recovery of these patients, most likely Broussalian had already left. Let’s hope that they got a drip anyway after he left, and in time. On YouTube Broussalian presents his ‘research’ in a video. I will not embed that video in this post, because I suspect the patients never gave permission to use the footage for this purpose. We can see from the video that Broussalian never informs the patients about what a homeopathic treatment is. He just sprays them in casual matter.

This sort of unethical behaviour doesn’t predict anything good for his stay in Liberia. On his website there is a post from October 12th: ‘Mission Ebola‘. You can’t read it straightaway, it’s password protected. After a few guesses I found that it is simply ‘ebola’. So read this now before they remove it or change the password [1/11/2014: post is removed, see update below]. He writes that they will first take the two-day course learning how to deal with those protective suits. Also that he thinks that it is not certain that they will be able to access ebola patients in an early fase of their illness, that might take a bit longer as was his experience on Haiti. Their goal is to find out which homeopathic remedy works best and they strive for a zero procent mortality. And probably they will get opportunities to treat the numerous other illnesses that are now a little less ‘in fashion’. He ends his post with the following words:

Enfin, c’est une occasion unique de démontrer la valeur de l’homéopathie. On nous dénigrera bien sûr, on contestera que les malades guéris fussent malades, mais nous espérons en soigner un si grand nombre qu’il n’y aura pas de contestation possible. Les marchands de vaccins expérimentaux pourront alors aller se rhabiller.

[rough translation: ‘Enfin, this is a unique opportunity to demonstrate the value of homeopathy. Of course they will discredit us, they will contest that the cured patients had been sick in the first place,  but we hope to treat such a big number that there can be no doubt. The companies working on the experimental vaccins can start packing their bags.’]

Dangerous boasting. In their magazines and on YouTube they will probably succeed in framing their experiences as a big succes for homeopathy. If things go on as planned, that is. Ganta Hospital, the Methodist hospital where the four allegedly will start working in the new ebola clinic, has been informed about their true intentions.

Update: just found this post on Facebook. It seems that for the moment things go as planned for the homeopaths, they were received by a representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Asriel C. Davis) and a certain Victor Doolakeh Taryor, hospital administrator of Ganta Hospital. [28/10/2014 this post is now changed, the letters from the homeopaths have been deleted]

Update 27-10-2014: for those who have doubts that the Liga Medicorum Homoeopathica Internationalis has something to do with this mission, read this letter (pdf) by their president Renzo Galassi from last August. Many national organisations of homeopaths are member of this Liga, so they share responsibility.

Update 28-10-2014: The team of homeopaths is most likely part of a bigger group of twenty doctors which are sent to Ganta Hospital by German foundation. See this post on their website: Freunde Liberias e.V. ebnet Weg für internationales Ärzteteam. I’ve send them an e-mail for confirmation, but no reply yet. They might not know what the secret agenda of the homeopaths is.

Update 1-11-2014: the blog post ‘Mission Ebola’ by Broussalian has been removed, as I expected. Here is a screenshot of the contents after entering the password, a plaintext version is also available.

This story is followed up in a new post:

Top Level Homeopaths Behind Ebola Mission in Liberia

 

Oct 19

Science Babe Takes 50 Homeopathic Sleeping Pills. Does it Debunk Homeopathy?

This YouTube video by Yvette d’Entremont, who calls herself the ‘The Science Babe’, is making rounds on the Internet, also on skeptical websites. She tries to convince the viewer that homeopathic sleeping pills don’t work by swallowing a whole packet of 50 pills of Calms Forté. She doesn’t feel sleepy even after waiting one and a half hour. So, homeopathy is bullocks and the producers of these pills are misleading consumers?! That might be true, but I don’t agree that this is a convincing way to debunk homeopathy in general, but I’ll explain that after the video:

As you can see in the comments on YouTube or in the comment areas of the blogs which show this video, a lot of homeopathy supporters come with counter arguments: the Science Babe didn’t take the pills according to the ‘rules’, like don’t touching them with your hands and swallowing them together with the diet Coke. According to them you should drop some pills under your tongue directly from the bottle and let those dissolve there. So this video is just another example of those pesky skeptics who don’t understand homeopathic principles and start shouting that it is nonsense, based on faulty tests. Do they have a point?

Read the rest of this entry »

Oct 07

No Clues for Negative effects of Wi-Fi on Trees According to Wageningen University

About four years ago scary news about research that had shown devastating effects of Wi-Fi on trees and plants went all over the Internet. This research was done at Wageningen University in the Netherlands and was allegedly supported by Delft University and TNO. De study was commissioned by the Dutch municipality of Alphen aan den Rijn, in particular by Niek van ‘t Wout, head of green space of that city. Goal of the experiment was to find out whether electromagnetic fields (EM-fields) from Wi-Fi routers might have anything to do with the occurence of a mysterious tree disease which had already affected a lot of trees with bark nodules and fissures. As no known biological explanation could be given for this disease Van ‘t Wout came up with the idea that radiation could be part of the problem.
Soon the story was brought back to its proper proportions: it were just preliminary results and the prestigious institutions apart from Wageningen University were not involved at all. And although the experiment found some differences between the trees exposed to Wi-Fi and an unexposed control group, the experiment was quite small and it was not clear whether there was any connection between the found leaf discolourments and the disease of the trees in Alphen aan den Rijn. A bigger and better controlled experiment was announced, but we had to wait some years to hear anything from this again.

Climate chamber with Wi-Fi transmitters (src: report Wageningen University)

Climate chamber with Wi-Fi transmitters (src: report Wageningen University)

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Jun 13

The Incredible Floww Health Technology

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From the Floww website:

Floww® Health Technology was developed by Dutchman Jim Wagenaar. In the nineties he foresaw an irreversible increase in the amount of electromagnetic radiation. He also noted that more and more people had health problems which they attributed to radiation. Knowing that the human body itself also possesses a broad range of frequencies, he conceived the idea that radiation from outside could possibly be converted into body natural frequencies. Based on this he developed a unique method: Floww® Health Technology. 

Their products range from a mobileFloww, costing 49 euro, which you are supposed to stick on your mobile phone, to a homeFloww set costing 1,350 euro. Just another company selling bogus devices against electrosmog?

Out with the Bioresonance Drops and New ‘Research’

Almost two years ago Martin Bier, professor in physics, wrote an article about Floww on Kloptdatwel.nl, the Dutch skeptic website of which I’m one of the editors. He made clear that the claims of Floww are complete nonsense from a scientifical viewpoint. At that time, the company was also selling bioresonance drops, just plain water with a touch of ethanol to which a composition of frequencies was added. The specific composition was chosen depending on a analysis of a cheeck swap you would have to send in when ordering. They don’t sell those Floww Drops anymore, perhaps because of regulations you have to go by when selling ingestibale stuff. But the other products are sold without this personal analysis, so now we are supposed to believe that one size frequency fits all?

Since Bier’s article it seems that Floww has grown fast and is focussing on the international market more and more. Also their website presents some new ‘research’ on their technology. About time for a follow up in English, I thought.

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Because Crop Circles and Chemtrails are sooo 2013 …

Chemtrail circle?

Just kidding

Apr 30

Great example of debunking bad science: on health effects Fukushima fallout in USA

There is a lot of fear mongering on the effects of the Fukushima disaster. Most of it comes from vague sources and is easily debunked. Things get a bit more complicated when supposedly real scientists are publishing articles in peer reviewed journals which show horrifying health figures caused by radioactive fallout in the months following the events which started with the deathly tsunami which struck upon the Japanese coast. Joseph Mangano and Janette Sherman startled the US public with at least two articles, one even showing that probably 14,000 Americans had died due to the radiation. These scientists, however, have a clear anti-nucleair agenda and their calculations are deliberately misleading, as other more sincere scientists discovered.

The article on the 14,000 excess deaths was introduced by a press release:

 An estimated 14,000 excess deaths in the United States are linked to the radioactive fallout from the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear reactors in Japan, according to a major new article in the December 2011 edition of the International Journal of Health Services.   This is the first peer-reviewed study published in a medical journal documenting the health hazards of Fukushima.

The article itself was published as: An unexpected mortality increase in the United States follows arrival of the radioactive plume from Fukushima: is there a correlation? More recent (2013) is the article in which they show an increase in congenital hypothyrodism in the months following the Fukushima disaster: Changes in confirmed plus borderline cases of congenital hypothyroidism in California as a function of environmental fallout from the Fukushima nuclear meltdown (Open Journal of Pediatrics).

Sounds frightening, doesn’t it? However both articles are completely bogus. In the following video these articles are ripped apart:

Popular Mechanics published a nice article on the nasty consequences of publication of this sort of bad science: What Can We Do About Junk Science? It ends with the following statement:

It’s easy to blame the impact of junk science on sloppy experiments, irresponsible reporters, or a failure of peer review. But even after it’s debunked, junk science sticks because it preys on the public’s fear and distrust. Ultimately, junk science can be dispelled only if individuals think like scientists: Evaluate all the evidence and try to disprove your own preconceptions.

This might be true, but I think it takes some effort by scientists to lead those individuals where to look for good evidence and to give some clues how to evaluate it. An academic ‘debunk’ in the form of a response on the article in the journal which published it, will also probably not reach the wider audience which was misled by the original article itself or it’s passing on in an uncritical way by other media. And such a response could be behind a paywall as well. That’s why I appreciate this debunking video so much. It does a far better job in setting things straight for the audience the propaganda was aimed at in the first place, I think.

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