Here is a recap of the stories that appeared last week at Science-Based Medicine, a multi-author skeptical blog that separates the science from the woo-woo in medicine.
“Alternative” cancer cures in 1979: How little things have changed (David Gorski) http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/index.php/alternative-cancer-cures-in-1979-how-little-things-have-changed/ Three magazine articles from 1979 issues of Penthouse show that little has changed over the years. Gary Null wrote a broadside against conventional cancer care, using the same faulty arguments he uses today and promoting Laetrile. In another article he praised Stanislaw Burzynski, saying he had a cure for cancer that was being suppressed. A third article was a tour of alternative cancer therapies; every dubious and unproven therapy they espoused in 1979 is still being practiced today.
A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind (Harriet Hall) http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/index.php/a-skeptics-guide-to-the-mind/ A new book by neurologist Robert Burton investigates how a brain creates a mind, and the limitations on what we can learn about consciousness and free will. It describes the latest research in neuroscience, fascinating experiments that raise more questions than they answer.
Coffee is a popular drink – 54% of Americans drink coffee daily, resulting in $4 billion in annual coffee imports. I’ll admit up front I am not a coffee drinker myself. This probably has something to do with the fact that I am in the 25% of the population known as supertasters. Coffee is unpalatably bitter to me. As a headache specialist I also have a bit of a bias against daily intake of caffeine, a very common migraine trigger.
The majority of people, however, do not share my tastes. Historically coffee is popular in the US particularly since the Boston Tea Party. Coffee became a more patriotic drink, a thumb in the eye of our English overlords and their tea.
I also think that coffee’s popularity is at least partly due to the fact it is a legal drug delivery system, and that drug (caffeine) is somewhat addictive. The particular property of caffeine that hooks people is known as tolerance – after about 6 weeks of regular caffeine consumption your brain becomes tolerant to the stimulant effects of caffeine and instead experiences significant withdrawal symptoms if too much time goes by since your last mocha latte. Daily coffee drinkers end up chasing this withdrawal with more coffee, struggling just to get back to their baseline alertness, and convinced that they cannot function without their Frappuccino. If you have headaches then caffeine becomes a very effective treatment – for caffeine withdrawal headaches.
“Skepticism is the first step on the road to truth.” — Denis Diderot
A leading figure of the European Enlightenment, the great philosophe and skeptic Denis Diderot was a tireless foe of the superstitions of his age. He believed that science was the best way to fight such unfounded belief. In order to popularize this new science, and over a number of laborious decades (from 1745 until 1772), he worked on his Encyclopédie, which eventually totaled 28 volumes, later growing to 35 volumes on a wide variety of topics.
Diderot believed if such a compilation of both general and specific knowledge about many different fields was widely available, that it could “change men's common way of thinking,” and free them from the shackles of superstition that caused so much human misery. Despite the controversial nature of the project — the Encyclopédie had hundreds of contributors and some of them wrote entries harshly critical of superstition, religion and what we would now call paranormal belief — the project continued, and is considered the crowning achievement of the Enlightenment. (There were great skeptical entries on witchcraft, werewolves, divination, sexually motivated demon possession, astrology, superstition, and the like — all in the mid-1700s!)
Fast-forward almost 250 years, and today, the fifth most popular website on the Internet — Wikipedia — would probably make Diderot really happy. Wikipedia is a collection of pages on the World Wide Web on the widest range of topics imaginable — 26 million articles in 286 languages! — and they are all crowd-sourced into an online encyclopedia produced by volunteers from all over the world.
One such Wikipedia volunteer is skeptic activist Susan Gerbic, who has created a Wikipedia Skepticism Project. She recently presented a workshop for The James Randi Educational Foundation in Los Angeles, CA, about ways people can promote critical thinking and the scientific outlook by contributing edits and content to Wikipedia, especially on topics related to scientific skepticism, the paranormal, and pseudoscience.
In JREF’s video of the workshop she details recent collaborative efforts to update the entries on paranormalists like Chip Coffey, James Van Praagh, Sylvia Browne, and Teresa Caputo, along with the entries on leading scientific skeptics like James Randi, Leo Igwe, and so many others.
If you want to get involved with this important work, please be sure to contact her as explained in the video.
The Amazing Meeting Sunday paper presentations led directly to my involvement in skepticism. They could get you involved too - but only if you submit a proposal.
When I am interviewed about my work as a skeptic, the question sometimes comes up: how did you get started? My personal story revolves around The Amazing Meeting and it's a story that any skeptic could emulate.
Like many Americans growing up in the sixties and seventies, I was exposed to a great deal of pseudoscience, such as stories of UFOs and the Bermuda Triangle. But at the same time I was very interested in real science, particularly astronomy. I started to be skeptical, but never took it further.