Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Small News: Vitamins and Flu Shots

For those, who love stuffing themselves with vitamins, the news this week is great: stop, save some money and use it for more productive purposes:

Annals of Internal Medicine: Oral High-Dose Multivitamins and Minerals After Myocardial Infarction: A Randomized Trial and Long-Term Multivitamin Supplementation and Cognitive Function in Men: A Randomized Trial

A nice explanation by Steven Novella:
Strike Three for Multivitamin Use
and from CNN:
Are multivitamins a waste of money? Editorial in medical journal says yes

This has been a suspicion of the medical and scientific community (the real one, not the alt-med, and not the vitamin manufacturers) for many years. Unless you have a medical problem that actually prevents your body from properly making or utilizing a specific vitamin, there is no need for supplementation. All you really need is balanced diet and healthy lifestyle. Stop wasting your money and energy, stuffing yourself with things that you don't really need. There is even some research that suggest that vitamin mega dosing could increase your risk of cancer in the future. Remember, it took millions of years of evolution to fine tune your body work the best it can, so we should probably let it work, unless there is a real problem.

As we are in a full blown flu season again, it's never enough to remind people that flu shots are good for you:
7 myths about the flu vaccine and why you should get it anyway

EDIT (12/19/2013):
There is a great (as always) overview of the multivitamin issue at the Science-Based Medicine blog:
Move evidence that routine multivitamin use should be avoided

Friday, November 15, 2013

Burzynski Clinic: Collapsing Under the Lack of Evidence?

I have written about Dr Stanislaw Burzynski before. He was somewhat of a hero / celebrity in a Polish community in the U.S., especially in the early 1990s, when his therapies had looked promising and there was little evidence of wrongdoing.
Since then, he seems to be on a sliding path to obscurity, and, by the news reports, it looks like he's getting there fast. We can only hope he does nor drive too many people to poverty, and he does not break too many hearts with false hope in the process.

Here is a great article from USA Today, by Liz Szabo Doctor accused of selling false hope to families, and  a very descriptive commentary by Orac: Stanislaw Burzynski in USA Today: Abuse of clinical trials and patients versus the ineffectiveness of the FDA and Texas Medical Board

Herbal Supplements - Not What You Think!

An interesting paper has been published recently in the BMC Medicine journal:

"DNA barcoding detects contamination and substitution in North American herbal products"

The idea sounds complex, and it is, but the general results of this study are pretty scary, especially if you, like many Americans, use a number of very popular herbal remedies for all kinds of ailments.
The idea that herbal remedies are not as harmless as they are advertised to be, has been known in a skeptical community for a long time, but it is something that filters to a general public very slowly. That's because the supplement industry has been selling herbs as miracle cures that can treat anything and are harmless and side-effect-free, which is not true, of course.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

That Puts a New Spin on Polish Jokes

For the record... I am of Polish descent and, no, I did not switch to "Polish" for the jokes... (Seinfeld reference.. sorry).

A new report from Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, shows that American are not that great when it comes to understanding of math, reading and technology that surrounds them. This is of course very troublesome, because as the world gets more and more complex, it is crucial for any real democracy to be based on a society that can make informed and intelligent decisions. And when people participating in democratic decisions have trouble figuring out facts from fiction, then we get what we are observing right now in the US: a government that's unable to govern, because a small, but vocal minority that refuses to work with anyone else. And the country goes to hell fast...

Great summary of the report can be found at the Atlantic: Americans Are Way Behind in Math, Vocabulary, and Technology:
The average level of literacy in the U.S. is on par with that of Cyprus, Poland, and Austria (p. 65).
It'll be funny to start some "American" jokes now...

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Shutdown! How Stupid We Are...

So, we did shut down our government. Yes, we did, because WE voted for all the crazies that don't accept reality, reason and don't have a shred of critical thinking left in their brains... but that's no surprise. If you google some of them, they have a history of denying reality, lying and just making up "facts" as they need them to support their fringe beliefs.

I stumbled upon a few great articles on line:

THE REIGN OF MORONS IS HERE - from Esquire, that sums it up nicely:
We have elected an ungovernable collection of snake-handlers, Bible-bangers, ignorami, bagmen and outright frauds, a collection so ungovernable that it insists the nation be ungovernable, too. We have elected people to govern us who do not believe in government.
Also, worth reading is "Meet the Morons Who Caused the Shutdown", which is a nice primer on the point I mention at the beginning of this post: the idiots are doing it all along, we have just chosen to ignore it, and elect them again, and again.

Slate has a great post on the topic as well, and a very funny quote from the conservative Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-Ind:
"We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is."
Finally, since the U.S. is (or at least we hope) the world largest economy, the rest of the planet is understandably worried about our stupidity. Nobody out there wants to be dragged into another global recession just because a bunch of bozos decided to left their brains at home, before heading to Washington (granted, some of them might just not be lucky enough to have them in the first place). I read foreign newspapers and magazines and the spirit is pretty much the same with all of the important ones: it's the crazy right-wing tea-baggers, who are driving us into the ground. The only question is, how can a few, fringe extremists have so much effect on the rest of the otherwise rational country.

This article is hysterical too: If It Happened There ... the Government Shutdown

Stupid Quote of the Day

Here is a stupid quote of the day, from a pastor of a church in Texas, who encouraged her flock not to vaccinate, so they got themselves a little outbreak of measles:
"So I'm going to tell you what the facts are, and the facts are the facts, but then we know the truth. That always overcomes facts..."
Here is the whole story from NPR: Texas Megachurch At Center Of Measles Outbreak

Friday, September 27, 2013

Global Warming - It's Here With a Force

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will be releasing it's 5th report on Monday, September 30th, but the Summary for Policymakers is out already.

For those who follow the climate change "controversy" for the last 20 years, there are no surprises: the climate is getting hotter and it is happening faster than previously expected. Despite some temperature fluctuations and other small factors changing from year to year (regression to the mean, anyone?), the world is getting hotter, and while it might be just mildly "inconvenient" for our generation (I'm not sure if you can say that to the victims of the last year's hurricane Sandy), it'll be disastrous for our children, grandchildren and beyond.

There are things that can't be changed anymore, and we'll have to live with the consequences of our stupidity and excess, but there is still plenty that can be done to lessen the impacts on various parts of the world and to make sure that we don't hit the extremes predicted by the report. Those things will depend on us, the way we vote in the future and the politicians we elect as our representatives. We can keep voting for the deniers, who accept only science that fits their ideology, or we can start picking people who are smart and who understand what science is. Otherwise, we'll see what it means when reality just does not care and goes over us like a steamroller.

In the meantime, since we are going to hear all kinds of denial in the coming weeks and months, here is a great primer, from Mother Jones, on the most important points:

4 Climate Myths You'll Hear This Week

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Ayurvedic Medicine - Same Crap, Different Name

If you are looking for an "ancient" wisdom (as in, from the times when people had no idea how the world worked, and made up thinks as they went along), an alternative way of thinking about health, and a new (old) way of treating your ills... look no further... try ayurvedic medicine!

Ayurvedic medicine, in my view, is just a step up from homeopathy, since it actually utilizes "active" ingredients (unlike most of the homeopathic drugs, which are either pure water or sugar), like herbs and various chemicals contained in them. It also focuses on proper diet, which, of course is probably a good idea in any healthy lifestyle.
The first problem with ayurverdic medicine is the fact that it uses magic made up body types for diagnostics, and those types are governed by three "doshas": air/space, fire/water and earth/water. Sounds like nonsense? It, probably is!

The second issue with ayurvedic treatments is that a lot of them contain dangerous substances, and sometimes, just plain poisons. Since, they are mostly classified as supplements in the U.S., they are not in any way controlled, nor regulated. So, buyer beware!

More on the topic can be found in the Skeptic Dictionary (Ayurvedic medicine) and on the Rational Wiki.

So, the next time, someone attempts to sell you this newest fad, just say no. It'll save you a lot of money, and maybe your health too.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Is Science an Enemy of Humanity?

There is an interesting debate going on, on the virtual pages of the New York Times. It's a rather standard creationism vs. science/evolution exchange of ideas, started by an article "Why I'm a Creationist", written by Virginia Heffernan, that attracted some well-deserved criticism, and was answered by Steven Pinker in an article titled "Science Is Not Your Enemy". I have to confess that I find myself much more attached the Pinker's side (obviously):
In other words, the worldview that guides the moral and spiritual values of an educated person today is the worldview given to us by science. Though the scientific facts do not by themselves dictate values, they certainly hem in the possibilities. By stripping ecclesiastical authority of its credibility on factual matters, they cast doubt on its claims to certitude in matters of morality. The scientific refutation of the theory of vengeful gods and occult forces undermines practices such as human sacrifice, witch hunts, faith healing, trial by ordeal, and the persecution of heretics. The facts of science, by exposing the absence of purpose in the laws governing the universe, force us to take responsibility for the welfare of ourselves, our species, and our planet. For the same reason, they undercut any moral or political system based on mystical forces, quests, destinies, dialectics, struggles, or messianic ages. And in combination with a few unexceptionable convictions— that all of us value our own welfare and that we are social beings who impinge on each other and can negotiate codes of conduct—the scientific facts militate toward a defensible morality, namely adhering to principles that maximize the flourishing of humans and other sentient beings. This humanism, which is inextricable from a scientific understanding of the world, is becoming the de facto morality of modern democracies, international organizations, and liberalizing religions, and its unfulfilled promises define the moral imperatives we face today.
than to any of his opponents, especially, the religious and the politically motivated ones. Like the one from Ross Douthat:
Because we know the universe has no purpose, we must imbue it with the purposes of a (non-species-ist) liberal cosmopolitanism! Because of science, we know that modern civilization has no dialectic or destiny … so we must pursue its “unfulfilled promises” and accept its “moral imperatives” instead!
Ouch... do I smell "ad-hominem" attack? Call Pinker some names, and disregard his stance that only rational analysis and scientific thinking has been proven to better the human race for ages.

There is also a typical "science requires faith too" gibberish:
But this belief in science collapses on itself: there is no scientific evidence to prove that science is the only reliable way to discover truth. Once we take unproven hypotheses and dogmatize them, we have moved beyond scientific evidence into philosophical reflection on truth and the scientific method. Naturalist or not, when it comes to the world’s origins, we are all in the realm of faith.
Nope... there is no faith in science. Not in the way you would want to. It's just about simple rational thinking and understanding that, only via this avenue, we can learn anything useful about the world that surrounds us.

It's good to see that there are some, who understand it:
We need not, however, enter into simplistic debates that lead to endless conflict. Rather, we can bring science and the humanities together to explore a new synergy of scientific fact and human values. Recognizing that we are now understanding these evolutionary processes through science and appreciating them through art, poetry, literature, music and spirituality gives us an opportunity to discover our own role in this unfolding story.
Science does not invalidate humanism, poetry, art, and countless other "soul-based" activities. It enhances them and makes them work pursuing, especially when we realize we have very little time to do it.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Discovery Channel Lost Its Credibility

My son is a big shark fan, so it was no surprise that the beginning of the Discovery Channel's Shark Week, was a big hit in our house.
We tuned in to see the documentary on Megalodon last Sunday night, and what an epic FAIL it was. The crap they put up, with fake footage, crappy interviews and made up stories, all packaged in a pseudo-documentary format, was terrible!!! I would not mind seeing it, even on Discovery Channel, if it was made as a regular fiction, but when you try, as much as you can, to pass it as a documentary and real, it is just too much.
So, sorry, Discovery Channel, but I will have to start looking at your programs with a little more doubt from no on, and, as History Channel and Animal Planet in the past, you are moving to the "trash" category in my channel lineup. Can Morgan Freeman still rescue you? Doubtfully...

Here is a great summary: Shark Week Jumps The Shark: An Open Letter To Discovery Communications

Thursday, July 18, 2013

What Do We Do?

Summer, vacation, whatever... I was not able to pass by this one.

We are in a real pickle...
[...] a Vatican court has ruled that following Pope Francis online and on Twitter can earn believers time off from their sentence to purgatory for confessed and forgiven sins...
On the other hand, the Saudis say that Twitter takes you straight to Hell:
Sheikh Abdul Latif Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh said anyone using social media sites - and especially Twitter - "has lost this world and his afterlife".
So... what do you do? I'd say, we need to break the tie, maybe consult a third party?

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Yes, It Is Summer...

It's vacation time, so no posts for a while. No time, and no energy. Too bad, because there is plenty of woo-woo and craziness to go around, despite the lazy time of the year.

Check this out: Pastor behind Koran burning looking for Tampa Bay location

Some neighbor to have, huh? All we need is for the Westboro Baptist Church to show up, and we are all set as far as nutcases go.

However, it is vacation time after all, time for relaxation and rest, so no more grim news.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Republican Denial of Reality?

I would like to make my point from a few days ago (can you be smart and a Republican at the same time) even stronger, so I present you with a few more interesting bits of information I stumbled upon on the Web.

1. An article from Slate, by Phil Plate: Why is Our Government Attacking Science?
2. Again, from Slate: Mandating Scientific Discovery Never Works, by Lawrence Krauss.

Both authors are great scientist (see Plait's "Death from the Skies!: The Science Behind the End of the World" and Krauss' "A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing"), and both of them understand how science works extremely well. On the other hand the Republicans in the government seem to only accept science that is convenient for them, either politically, or ideologically. And that, of course, will take us back to the times where science, "reason" and philosophy were in the service of the rulers. We still call those times "The Dark Ages", and for a very good reason.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Do You Believe In Magic?

You do, if you use homeopathy, acupuncture, chiropractic, Reiki, some kind of faith healing, and countless other alternative medicine modalities that have absolutely no roots in modern science, reality and critical thinking. Most of them are just ways of "wishing away" the problem, and while some might "work" as a placebo, the might have some dangers associated with their use, and, when used instead of real medical interventions, all of them can be deadly (see here, here, and here).

So, why do we do it? Because we want miracles? Because we don't know any better? Because science is complex and, sometimes, difficult to understand? Probably, all of the above.

It is good to know that we can count on a few brave authors, who do the research, dig out the details and present it in a nice fashion, digestible by the regular folks like us. Among them is Paul Offit, a medical doctor, a researcher, and a strong proponent of reality-based medicine, including vaccines. His previous books, "Autism False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine and the Search For a Cure", and "Deadly Choices" were both excellent descriptions of the vaccine "controversy", how it started, evolved from bad science to social movement, and how it threatens our health and the well-being (and lives) of our children. Knowing his great writing style and deep commitment to science and research, I was very excited to find out that his new book "Do You Believe in Magic?: The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine" is out. I should have more of my own thoughts about it in a few days (or weeks, it's summer after all), but in the meantime, here are two reviews available on line:

Book raises alarms about alternative medicine - from USA Today, by Liz Szabo
Vaccine advocate takes on the alternative medicine industry - NBC News

There is also more on the topic from Liz Szabo: Alternative therapies, supplements can cause side effects and How to guard against a quack

Go, read it all, and stop believing in magic. It's the 21st Century!

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Are "Smart" and "Republican" Mutually Exclusive Terms?

Following my fascination with cognitive dissonance and how it can obstruct one's clear view of reality and reason, I give you the real world example.

First, an article from the Tampa Bay Times, from a few years back (I remember reading it in real print):

Why scientists are seldom Republicans
Have you ever wondered what the world would be like without scientists? Ask the Republican Party. It lives in such a world. Republicans have been so successful in driving out of their party anyone who endeavors in scientific inquiry that pretty soon there won't be anyone left who can distinguish a periodic table from a kitchen table.
This was a brilliant article and it's funny, how the Republicans finally noticed the same thing, after the last elections, and decided to stop being a "stupid party"... except I don't think they are actually trying at all.

Not only, the narrative from them did not change, but it seems it is getting worse. From climate change and creationism, to gun control and human rights, they are still deep in the 19th Century, and they seem to be more and more proud of it. Case in point:

Where do we go from here??? Only a complete negation of reality can follow... and it's a scary, scary vision.

Friday, June 7, 2013

On Cognitive Dissonance, or How We Reinforce Our Beliefs

We all go through life with a set of solid, well established beliefs. We acquire some of them from our parents, other ones in a process of our education, and some we seek out on our own, settling into something comfortable and familiar that drives our everyday lives.

This process of establishing one's identity is interesting, but what is even more captivating, from my point of view, is how we hold on to those beliefs throughout our lives. After all, we get most of them in our formative years, when we are young and easily influenced. However, we manage to hold on to many of them for the rest of our lives, even when they don't make sense, even when facts and everyday experiences tell us there are absolutely no reasons behind them.

This ranges from deeply "spiritual" beliefs, to those that might affect our health (e.g. alternative medicine vs. science-based medicine), to something as mundane as superstitions (knock on wood anyone?). I've been always fascinated with how this works... people, who are seemingly very rational, who pride themselves in conducting their daily lives based only on rational, methodical decisions, who spend better part of their education in science, can completely disregard reason and logical thinking when it comes to some beliefs, which seem to be completely immune from any criticism and skepticism. How many rational people would use oscillococcinum, or echinacea for cold, even though there is no clinical evidence that they work. Why do we ridicule homeopathy, but think that some other alternative medicine modality will help? Why do we laugh at beliefs from other parts of the world, but get offended when someone does the same to our own convictions?

Of course, in psychology, this is not a new question. A theory of cognitive dissonance has been around since 1957, and it states:
The theory of cognitive dissonance in social psychology proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance by altering existing cognitions, adding new ones to create a consistent belief system, or alternatively by reducing the importance of any one of the dissonant elements.[1] It is the distressing mental state that people feel when they "find themselves doing things that don't fit with what they know, or having opinions that do not fit with other opinions they hold."[4] A key assumption is that people want their expectations to meet reality, creating a sense of equilibrium.[5] Likewise, another assumption is that a person will avoid situations or information sources that give rise to feelings of uneasiness, or dissonance.
Even better source of popular information about this fascinating topic is a book by Caroll Tavris and Elliot Aronson: "Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts".

It is easy, in line with the theory of cognitive dissonance, to point mistakes in others, to see their foolishness and stupidity, but much harder to do the same to ourselves. As great physicist and Nobel Prize winner, Richard Feynman once said:
"The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool."
But the first step of not fooling yourself is the knowledge of the principles and psychological mechanisms of such processes. Questioning every belief, and every idea, seemingly set in stone, is the only way to weed out the nonsense and superstition.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Book Recommendation: Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood & the Prison of Belief

If you want to see how to create a new religion in less than one generation, pick up this book:

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood & the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright

I live pretty close to Clearwater, passed by the Scientology base there many times, I have seen their tables with e-meters in the local malls, and years and years ago, when I was working around Times Square in NYC, I peeked into their center there as well. For many years, I assumed it was a harmless cult for people in search of some spiritual need, the ultimate meaning and purpose of life, something new and exciting in their lives. After all, isn't that what all religions give us? However, as I was learning more about this particular cult, I realized that its dangers exceed any other religions we are familiar with, due to its secrecy, extend of its influence on people, and pure lunacy of its beliefs.

Now, after reading Wright's excellent book, I have even more contempt for this crazy cult and its followers, especially those who seem to have "brains" to think for themselves, and just refuse to do so, because they are too invested (either psychologically, or financially) in something that is so blatantly crazy.

The book has basically three logical parts:
  • L. Ron Hubbard's early years - his war "heroism", his science-fiction writing career and the beginnings of his methods of mind control.
  • Hubbard's "public" years - the crazy voyages across the seas, the beginnings of the religion of Scientology, dealings with foreign governments, the first battles with the IRS, and finally his "disappearance" (real and metaphysical).
  • Scientology under David Miscavige - the victory over the IRS, and the expansion of the church, especially into Hollywood.
While the book starts off a bit slowly, and the elaborate details of Hubbard's early life seem a bit boring, they do paint an excellent picture of the future cult/religion, and it's apparent success. Hubbard's personality and his imagination were instrumental in establishing foundations of Scientology. The history of the church under Miscavige is a different story altogether, which reads more like a good suspense, or crime novel, rather than an account of things that really happen.

"Going Clear" is not only an excellent primer on Scientology itself, but it is also a great study on how a new religion can be created in a very short time, given a charismatic leader, a few lies here and there, and a group of people with enough problems in their own lives, that they would follow anyone and anything like sheep. Scientology, along with the Mormon church, is the second "major" religion created in the last 200 years, with enough historical records to study this strange human behavior and better understand human needs for community and belonging, and how those traits can be used and abused by others.

I guess, the only complaint I have about Lawrence Wright's book, is its very ending, in which the author actually seems to be giving Scientology a free pass, by comparing it to older, more mature religions and implying that since most of us need some kind of religious affiliation in our lives, Scientology could, and should become just one of many religions, that guide us through our short and miserable existence.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Breakthrough In Physics: Florida Figures Out Time Travel!!!

Yes, that Nobel Prize winning feast has been accomplished in Marion County, in Central Florida, where they are bringing back beatings in elementary schools.

Gradebook reports:

Marion schools bring back paddling punishment

As the Ocala Star Banner reports as well:
The board ruled that paddling can be used only if a parent gives a standing written OK once a year. In addition, the principal must obtain verbal permission at the time the punishment is handed down. Under the policy, corporal punishment can only be used at the elementary school level. It can only be used on a child once a semester.
I would giggle reading it, if it weren't a bit scary. It also made me double-check the calendar to make sure we are in 2013. So, I guess, they did figure out how to go back in time after all. Not very shocking, since that area of Central Florida is very "conservative", if you know what I mean.

Friday, April 19, 2013

The Worst of Humanity

The worst of humanity comes out way too often. Columbine, 9/11, Aurora, Beslan, Sandy Hook, and now the Boston Marathon are just a few that come to mind when we think about evil acts that one human being can do to others. Some of those acts are unstoppable, as they come from the darkest corners of human psyche, some of them can be attributed to just plain craziness and mental instability and, as such, are even harder to predict and "control".

But should we give up and do nothing to protect ourselves, and our loved ones, just because it is almost impossible to predict the next act of terror, or the next deranged person who commits it? I don't think so. While removing all the danger is probably impossible, it is viable to limit access to the means of destruction and minimize the amount of damage that can be inflicted in our society, when a person, a group, or an entire country goes crazy (whether it is "real" crazy, or crazy for some ideology, is beyond this discussion). This is exactly why most of us agree that proliferation of nuclear weapons is not the best idea. We do not want a crazy regime (like Iran, for example) to loose their cool one day, and start nuking everyone around, even if it meant their own ultimate destruction. Totalitarian governments go nuts, and so do people, who can turn violent one day, without much warning.

In a western society that (most of the time) calls itself civilized and democratic, there is no need for individuals to posses means of killing others in large numbers. As individuals, we do not face threats greater that a single, evil or crazy person, and our means of defending ourselves should be adequate to such dangers. We also delegated personal protection duties to the society (in various forms: local, state, country, etc), as part of our contributions to this democratic and civilized society.

When individuals go crazy (again, call it crime, or madness, it is not relevant to this discussion, as it simply means taking that individual outside of bounds of our society), they should not have access to weapons that can kill scores of other people. Especially, weapons that are designed to do only one thing: kill many people quickly and efficiently. Evil people can always find a way, that's true, but we can make it as difficult as possible for those who just simply "flip". One way to make it difficult is to outlaw certain weapons (assault guns), make others difficult to obtain (especially for those who are already on the path to "crazy"), and control them all to some extent, so we have an idea where they are and how they are used.

Not doing that, and claiming that we are rational, intelligent beings, is immoral and just plain stupid. If we can take away the means of destruction and mayhem from evil and deranged individuals, but we refuse to do it for self-serving (money) reasons, we are showing the worst of humanity in all of us. The recent US debate about gun control (ban on assault weapons and large capacity magazines, and the extension of background checks to all gun sales) made it more visible than anything else could. One after another, those common sense measures were scraped under pressure from powerful, money welding interests, without even voting for them, with the last one (overwhelmingly supported by the public) being defeated in a vote two days ago, by the following senators:

Alexander (R-TN)
Ayotte (R-NH)
Barrasso (R-WY)
Baucus (D-MT)
Begich (D-AK)
Blunt (R-MO)
Boozman (R-AR)
Burr (R-NC)
Chambliss (R-GA)
Coats (R-IN)
Coburn (R-OK)
Cochran (R-MS)
Corker (R-TN)
Cornyn (R-TX)
Crapo (R-ID)
Cruz (R-TX)
Enzi (R-WY)
Fischer (R-NE)
Flake (R-AZ)
Graham (R-SC)
Grassley (R-IA)
Hatch (R-UT)
Heitkamp (D-ND)
Heller (R-NV)
Hoeven (R-ND)
Inhofe (R-OK)
Isakson (R-GA)
Johanns (R-NE)
Johnson (R-WI)
Lee (R-UT)
McConnell (R-KY)
Moran (R-KS)
Murkowski (R-AK)
Paul (R-KY)
Portman (R-OH)
Pryor (D-AR)
Reid (D-NV)
(voted "No" for procedural reasons)
Risch (R-ID)
Roberts (R-KS)
Rubio (R-FL)
Scott (R-SC)
Sessions (R-AL)
Shelby (R-AL)
Thune (R-SD)
Vitter (R-LA)
Wicker (R-MS)

Those senators went for the money, not the safety of us and our children. They decided that selling our peace of mind for their shady employment in Washington, is actually worth it. They showed us the worst of humanity, not because they did something illegal, but because they "rationally" and consciously chose to ignore morality and good of others. I don't expect much from my own Florida senator Marco Rubio, as he's been showing himself as nothing more than half-wit (the World is 6000 years old?) cynic (guns vs. immigration?), with no moral compass (please, don't bring his religion into it... it makes it even worse), but I was hoping that there are smarter and more decent people in the Senate. I was wrong...

As former representative Gabby Giffords said in her New York Times piece:
Mark my words: if we cannot make our communities safer with the Congress we have now, we will use every means available to make sure we have a different Congress, one that puts communities’ interests ahead of the gun lobby’s. To do nothing while others are in danger is not the American way.
Great idea! Let's vote them out next time we have a chance. They don't deserve to be any one's representatives.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Relative Morality

My interest in moral dilemmas was "tickled" recently, when I had heard a religious person stating that "stealing a dollar from a rich person is not as bad as stealing it from a poor one". Now, my reaction to such a statement in any other setting would be to ask a few follow up questions, but in this case, what struck me the most is the fact that the statement came from someone, who would be the first one accusing others (especially non-religious) of moral relativism.

In my mind, if we do not have any additional information, the question is simple to answer: there is no difference, when you are stealing from poor, or rich. A theft is a theft and, since your actions cause harm (physical, or mental) to others, they are morally wrong. We can, of course, expand this problem, by introducing variables, like your own wealth, or your current situation (Les Miserables comes to mind), and such differences can considerably change the outcome.

In any case, the answer might never be as obvious as one would expect, but my surprise was not so much with the problem itself, but with the person who stated it and "solved" it using some pretty relativistic criteria.

To follow up, here are some interesting readings on various moral philosophies and dilemmas:
1. Moral Dilemma: Would You Kill One Person to Save Five?
2. Stealing from the Rich
3. On ethics, part I: Moral philosophy’s third way
4. On ethics, part II: Consequentialism
5. On ethics, part III: Deontology
6. Of trolleys and morality

Monday, April 1, 2013

MLMs, Pyramids and A Hope of A Quick Buck

We have all been there... bombarded by hundreds of ads and commercials on how to make money fast, and, best of all, do it in the comfort of your own home. The salespeople make you feel guilty and stupid by showing off all the "successful" people who jumped in and made millions. MLMs, Multi Level Marketing schemes, or how I prefer calling them, scams, because after all those years, I still don't know anyone who actually made any significant amount of money out of them. That does not include those who set those scams up and profit from the people who fall prey to their marketing gimmicks and smooth talk.

I have seen Amway, coming and going in the early 1990s, then there was Herbalife, and numerous others, including some fancy "video e-mail/conferencing" in the mid 2000s, which seems to be making a comeback on Facebook in the recent months. For all of them, the idea is the same, but the math (and it's rather simple math) does not work, as you run out of potential customers very quickly.

However, there is always someone who's inventing new tricks to make money using old ideas.
As a good precaution, it's worth diving into this extensive article, published by The Verge, which explores the never ending variations on the good, old pyramid scheme:

Income At Home, Herbalife, and the $8 billion pyramid

It's also worth looking at some statistics on what is actually an average success rate for an MLM-type business:

The Likelihood of MLM Success

and, see the idea from a skeptical point of view:

MLM Watch

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Getting Hot and Uncomfortable

So, this is nothing new in my opinion, but the recent study on the quick and accelerating rise in global temperature is simply stunning:
Early Holocene (10,000 to 5000 years ago) warmth is followed by ~0.7°C cooling through the middle to late Holocene (<5000 years ago), culminating in the coolest temperatures of the Holocene during the Little Ice Age, about 200 years ago. This cooling is largely associated with ~2°C change in the North Atlantic. Current global temperatures of the past decade have not yet exceeded peak interglacial values but are warmer than during ~75% of the Holocene temperature history.
It's very bad news, especially for our kids, who will suffer most of the consequences of this global temperature rise, in the next hundred, or so, years. Check out this projection, from ThinkProgress:

Looks pretty ominous, especially because more and more scientists agree that the past projections were vastly underestimating the rate of temperature change, and now, it looks like we are in for a much bumpier ride.

Now, if you think all this has no immediate effects on your life, think again. If you complain of allergies, and most of the people I know do, you should thank our insatiable thirst for fossil fuels. A recent study (here is the CNN article about it, and the study itself - paid access required) showed that the amount of allergens in the air between the years 2000 and 2040 will increase dramatically. This will make us and our children feel more and more miserable.

So, the next time you'll vote for someone who's not willing to do something about global warming, or just flatly denies it, think back to the last allergy season, and realize that in less than 30 years it could get three times as bad if we don't come up with some solutions.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

More on Dr. Oz

Wow... Dr. Oz is really hitting the waves this week.

After a great article in The New Yorker, exposing Dr. Oz's bland disregard for facts and reality, as well as the real motivation behind his media persona (ratings, money and fame), he dives ever deeper into the abyss of irrationality and pure stupidity. Dr. Oz embraces and endorses homeopathy!

Homeopathy irks me more than other alternative medicine woo, simply because a few years ago I myself watched helplessly, while a homeopathic "doctor" milked hundreds of dollars from someone with no good outlook for improvement and with very limited resources. The money went into useless "interviews" that had nothing to do with the condition of the patient, and into even more useless, "custom-designed drugs" that did nothing (it was pure water after all).

I'm glad that there is finally some bad publicity Dr. Oz gets from the media. Maybe exposing his program for what it really is, an elaborate fraud, not to help people, but to stuff his pockets, will turn away some of his viewers. I'm not against stuffing your own pockets at expense of others, especially when they are willing participants (yes, I go to the movies, and sometimes I even pay to see a really bad movie). What's dangerous about Dr. Oz is the fact that he has positioned himself in a health care "edutainment" sector of the media, and by promoting dubious therapies and just pure intellectual junk, he endangers people who believe him.

In the meantime, there are usual places on the Web that do a great job analyzing Dr. Oz's homeopathic claims:

Orac: Dr. Oz’s journey to the Dark Side is now more than complete: It’s Oz and homeopathy versus science-based medicine


Science-Based Medicine Blog: Are You Ready For the Oz Manifesto

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Dr. Oz - The Smooth Operator

I am no fan of Dr. Oz. I've been watching (metaphorically speaking, as I can hardly take watching him on TV) his raise to stardom from Oprah's "America's Doctor" wonder boy, to his own TV show, and the beginning of his own Day TV media empire, and I see a scary, scary future ahead of us.

At first, I thought that Dr. Oz basically sells a very typical and widely known advice of good diet, exercise and less daily stress, heavily coated in nonsense of alternative and herbal medicine and, increasingly, in funky spiritualism and pure crap (examples abound). I do realize that just saying "eat well and exercise daily" is not going to sell well on TV, since most of us just want quick fixes for our problems. However, Dr. Oz's endorsement of unproven herbs, vitamins and modalities that belong in Middle Ages, not in the 21st Century, is more dangerous than useful. Dr. Oz is also a proponent of Reiki, which is basically a type of therapeutic touch, which was completely discredited by a 9 year old Emily Rosa years ago. So, there you have it... would you trust that doctor with your health?

I'm glad the mainstream media has finally started noticing. I stumbled on this great article from the New Yorker: "The Operator", written by Michael Specter (the author of “Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives”, which I also highly recommend).
There is a number of really good points in the article, but this one really shows what Dr. Oz is about:
Oz sighed. “Medicine is a very religious experience,” he said. “I have my religion and you have yours. It becomes difficult for us to agree on what we think works, since so much of it is in the eye of the beholder. Data is rarely clean.” All facts come with a point of view. But his spin on it—that one can simply choose those which make sense, rather than data that happen to be true—was chilling. “You find the arguments that support your data,” he said, “and it’s my fact versus your fact.”
His facts are driven by his popularity and how well his show is doing, not by objectiveness. That's why I would never trust neither them, nor him.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

New Year Resolutions

Yes, the New Year resolutions never really get done, or at least most of them don't, but it's still good to place some goals in front of ourselves to strive for better, more peaceful and reasonable world.

So, in the World that did not end in 2012, what's out there for me in this coming New Year 2013:
- keep the ridicule and doubt high, in the spirit of Thomas Jefferson:
“Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them"
"Ignorance is preferable to error, and he is less remote from the truth who believes nothing than he who believes what is wrong."
- follow one of the best advices I have ever heard, the one from Christopher Hitchens:
“What can be asserted without proof can be dismissed without proof.”
- finally, as Hippocrates said:
"There are, in fact, two things, science and opinion; the former begets knowledge, the latter ignorance"
All of the above can help us in making this "unreality"-based world, a better, more humane place to live.