Cork Skeptics

Promoting Reason, Science & Critical Thinking in Cork City & Beyond


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Burzynski the Cancer Quack and other stories: Our roundup for January

Jen Keane speaking at Cork Skeptics(Photo courtesy Donncha O'Caoimh)

Jen Keane speaking at Cork Skeptics
(Photo courtesy Donncha O’Caoimh)

We were delighted to have Jen Keane down to speak to us on Saturday night. Jen has taken a personal interest in the Dr. Burzynski story. She has been a prominent voice on the Internet, challenging the widespread view that Burzynski is a “pioneer” and a “maverick”. Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski runs a cancer clinic in Houston, Texas. In recent years, he has become famous around the world for offering a supposedly side-effect free cure for certain types of cancers, deemed incurable by most medical experts. Many support groups have been formed to raise the huge funds necessary to send patients to the clinic in Texas, where they can partake in Burzynski’s “revolutionary” treatment.

Not is all it seems, unfortunately. Burzynski has published very few studies in support of his antineoplaston therapy. His treatment has not been approved by the FDA, and it is still – after 30 years – in clinical trial phase (which makes it highly unethical for him to be charging patients for his treatments). Although very little clinical information has been published by the Burzynski clinic, there is growing evidence that his treatments fall far short of the clinic’s promises, offering little or no advantage to anybody except Burzynski’s bank account.

burzynski_cancer_poster_ruffJen, who tweets as @Zenbuffy on Twitter, has had an ongoing interest in this story for some time now. Her father passed away recently from cancer, so she understands well the difficulties faced by patients, families and friends in such situations. She recognises the conflicting nature of the Burzynski situation: where patients’ freedom to choose knocks against the false hope on offer by the Burzynski Clinic. While patients should be free to choose, they and their families also need to be fully informed. This is not the situation at present. The information on offer by Burzynski is not the whole story. The press releases, glowing testimonials and documentary films are little more than advertisements. Information about side-effects, clinical trial results or negative results are much harder to come by. Patients, families and friends are not given the full story and instead are being told that critics are part of an organised conspiracy to silence Burzynski because he represents a threat to the special interests involved in the “cancer industry”. Mainstream media is not helping, preferring the publication of uncritical pieces rather than examining the many legitimate concerns of those who see another side to Burzynski. Thus, they are helping the marketing of Burzynski to a wider audience.

Jen had words of advice to those who might criticise patient support groups – “Be Kind”. While sceptics can and should be forthright in their concerns, little is achieved through ridicule, insults and insensitive comments on the Internet, of which there are many examples on all sides. The people who are fundraising and trying to help are usually doing it for the best of reasons. Unfortunately in this case they have been badly informed, and the responsibility for this falls at the feet of the Burzynski clinic.

There are many resources available, putting forward the position of prominent scientists, oncologists and skeptics in this area. David Gorski has been blogging about Burzynski for a number of years, as have Orac and Andy Lewis among others. A website, thehoustoncancerquack.com is fundraising to raise awareness of Burzynski’s activities, while simultaneously helping cancer patients in St. Jude’s Childrens Hospital.

This was a powerful, well researched talk. We’re looking forward in having Jen back in Cork at a future date.

Celebrities and Science 2012

Every Christmas, Sense about Science reviews some of the more extraordinary statements by celebrities in the past year. This year was no exception, with dried placenta pills being suggested as a mineral supplement, ground coffee beans as a treatment for cellulite and compressed oxygen to help slow down the ageing process. Is this the reason why “celebrity” and “credulity” sound so much alike?

GM Foods – a change of heart.

For years, Mark Lynas has been to the fore in the campaign against genetically modified foods. In a recent lecture to the Oxford Farming Conference he outlined a very different vision – one where GM foods could be part of the solution, rather than a problem to be eliminated. It’s a great talk, definitely worth a listen.

Sandy Hook Conspiracy Theories

Following on from the terrible shooting at the Sandy Hook school in Connecticut in December, a number of websites have sprung up claiming that the event was a conspiracy designed to part Americans from their guns. Some people have been targeted as “crisis actors”, while parents have been accused of not expressing “proper levels of grief”. They’ve produced a video about it – such is the level of insanity in parts of the conspiracy community.

Homeopathic Vaccines

The BBC’s Inside Out programme reported that Ainsworths, a homeopathy supplier in the UK, has been recommending homeopathic vaccines as an alternative to vaccines that inoculate against Measles, Rubella and Whooping Cough among other illnesses. Whooping Cough (Pertussis) and Measles are experiencing something of a resurgence in Ireland due to lowered vaccination rates.

The 12 Cognitive Biases that prevent us from being rational

The website io9 published an interesting article on 12 common faults in our hardwiring that make us prone to making huge errors in judgement. Errors include Ingroup Bias, Post-Purchase Rationalisation, Observational Selection Bias and Neglecting Probability. These biases help us to understand why rigour is required in science. Simple observation and anecdote does not guard against bias, so when it comes to the critical questions we need a greater standard of observation and analysis.


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January Skeptics In The Castle: Jennifer Keane Examines the Burzynski Clinic & Its Purported Cure For Cancer

burzynski_cancer_poster_ruff

Our next meeting will take place on Saturday 19th January at Blackrock Castle Observatory, starting at 8.00pm.

This talk by Jennifer Keane will examine the Burzynski Clinic and its purported side-effect free cure for cancer. Jen has kindly supplied the following summary of her talk:

Stanislaw Burzynski has a cheap, effective, and side-effect free cure for cancer, and the FDA don’t want you to know about it. For over 30 years, Burzynski claims he has treated cancer patients who had no other options, and given them back their lives. In the past, most of Burzynski’s patients have been in America, though recently, a surge of celebrity-led publicity surrounding some UK patients and their fundraising efforts means that Burzynski has well and truly crossed the pond. Increasing numbers of UK, and now Irish patients are signing up for treatment, and while some patients are claiming shrinking or disappearing brain tumours, many more seem a lot further from success.

In this talk, I hope to shine a critical light on Burzynski’s treatment, the financial burden that it represents for those who sign up for it, and whether or not he is really offering a cure, or just expensive false hope.

About the speaker: Jen became interested in scepticism and science investigation while in college, when a group project on clinical trials ended up highlighting the problems with trials, and the inconsistency in their quality, execution, etc. The group project sparked an enduring interest in clinical trials, and science communication, which would ultimately culminate in her winning the Whittaker Award, twice consecutively, for talks on the TGN1412 clinical trials, and on biofuels. She graduated from NUI Maynooth with a double honours degree in Biology and Computer Science, and is currently pursuing a MSc with the Open University.

Jen blogs and tweets as Zenbuffy, and began writing about about science and scepticism in 2009, and has covered topics such as homoeopathy, psychics, miracle cures, and science reporting, to name but a few. Though always an area of interest, her father’s battle with cancer has made the area of cancer cures and quackery a particularly important one for her.

This talk is open to the public, and is free to attend. Directions to Blackrock Castle Observatory can be found on our information page. We hope to see you there!


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Curiosity, Faces in the Stump, Cancer Quackery and Kinesio Tape – Our Roundup for August

Many thanks again to Reg Murphy who gave us a great talk on modern art, its impact on the world, and some of the fascinating characters involved. Reg tackled an enormous subject and digested it down to a very clever, understandable reading of the subject.

We recorded the meeting on Google Plus, and a rough version is already on YouTube: It needs some straightening out, but we’ll have that video up on the website soon.

At yesterday night’s meeting we covered a few interesting stories from the last month. Here are some links for further reading.


Mars Curiosity landing

On August 5th, the Mars Science Laboratory(aka “Curiosity Rover”) landed on Mars. It is the largest object ever to land on Mars and the complexity of its landing was breathtaking. If you haven’t yet seen the “Seven Minutes of Terror” video, do it now.

The Curiosity project is an excellent example of the power of science. Had the project team made one incorrect assumption about the atmosphere and environment on Mars, Curiosity would now be a heap of scrap strewn over the red planet. Science doesn’t know everything, but what it does know is pretty damn cool.


Stumped

Another example of pareidolia, where our minds see familiar patterns where none exist: a face of Jesus was seen in a tree stump in a cemetery in Belfast. Our friends in Belfast Skeptics have a brilliant take-down and some further examples of pareidolia.


Cancer Quackery in the Indo

A health supplement in the Irish Independent had the Internet up in arms on Thursday. Once of the stories related to a man who believes that he could use dowsing to identify and ward against cancer. Brendan Murphy from “Positive Energy” says that a phenomenon known as “geopathic stress” can impact on your susceptibility to cancer. According to a blurb on Murphy’s website:

Geopathic Stress is mainly caused by narrow paths of water about 200 – 300 ft (60 – 90 meters) below ground (also on top of mountains). The narrow water path creates an electromagnetic field, which distorts the earth’s natural vibrations, as these pass through the water. It is in particular the 7.83Hz (cycles per second) which are beneficiary and which we have lived with for millions of years. This is also the optimum part of the Schumann waves and Alpha vibrations. It has been confirmed by NASA the 7.83 Hz vibrations are incorporated into spacecrafts, otherwise the astronauts could only live in space a short time. Certain mineral concentrations, fault lines, moving underground plateaux and underground cavities can also disturb the natural earth vibrations. Strong Geopathic Stress can cause the body’s vibrations to rise as high as 250Hz. The U.S. scientist George Lakowsky confirmed in the thirties that humans (as well as animals) have less chance of fighting bacteria, viruses and parasites above 180 Hz, so they love humans and animals that vibrate at high levels.

What the what now?  NASA you say? Vibrating parasites? Pseudo-scientific nonsense wrapped up in scientific sounding language, you say? Well I never… The problem with promoting cancer quackery such as this is that it preys on some of the most vulnerable people on the planet, diverting them from proper medical care, to (in this case) a guy with a pair of coat hangers. It would be funny if it were not for the stuff he claims to be able to treat.


Head kicking for Jesus

Back to Northern Ireland, a preacher by the name of Todd Bentley is planning to visit Portadownnext month. Bentley also claims he has a cure for ailments such as cancer. Yes, you got it: a good kicking. We’re pretty sure Bentley is just a cheezy showman with a mouth the size of a football pitch, but UK MPs are being lobbied to ban him from visiting just in case he gets the urge to kick a few sick people on the side. Here are some samples of his live performances:


Colour Me Stupid

Many people have commented on the brightly coloured tape attached to the skin of Olympic athletes during London 2012. It turns out that this is Kinesio Tape: magic bandages for gullible athletes. Kinesio tape has a long history, originating from a Japanese chiropractor in the 1970′s. What it doesn’t have is much proof to support the claims that are being made. And so it goes: goodbye Power Balance wristbands, hello Kinesio tape. There’s a lucrative industry in bilking sports people with magic rubbish.


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Great skeptical battlefields

Terracotta Warrior (via Mike Stenhouse/ Flickr / CC Licensed)

One of the great things about skepticism is its diversity. There is a skeptical angle in so many areas of human interest. All you need to do is look under the cover of the marketing and you are bound to find some strange ideas hanging around. Consequently, skeptics are interested in all sorts of things, ranging from ghosts, to conspiracy theories, to alternative medicine, to UFOs; as well as the psychology, the history, and the philosophy that accompany such strange and bizarre thinking.

It can be easy to dismiss skepticism as purely a fascination with exotic and extreme ideas, but there is also a very serious side to skepticism. It’s one of the reasons why there is a skeptical movement in the first place. The world of delusional belief sometimes clashes with the world of reality in a way that can cause real casualties.

Here is a brief list of some of these battlegrounds for skepticism. The list below is by no means exhaustive. You may wish to add some of your own. It’s sometimes the case that even the most innocuous delusion can have serious consequences when brought to an extreme.

Anti-Vaccination

Although arguments against vaccines are as old as vaccines themselves, a concerted effort to challenge their use took shape in the 1990′s, when Andrew Wakefield published his findings in the Lancet, a well respected medical journal. Wakefield asserted a link between the childhood MMR vaccine and the onset of autistic spectrum disorders. Although his findings were subsequently found to be fraudulent and the paper withdrawn, the cat was out of the bag. The paper gave impetus to a wide variety of people who preferred to believe in a simple cause for autism, rather than the complex reasons uncovered by researchers. Celebrities such as Carol Vorderman, Jim Carrey, Jenny McCarthy and Bill Maher have been to the fore of the vaccine denial movement while websites such as the Age of Autism link vaccines to all sorts of other disorders. The result has been a drop in vaccination, particularly in the UK, France and the US. Consequent with this is a rise in viral illnesses such as whooping cough and measles. While most children recover from these illnesses, a small percentage are seriously affected, with children dying in some cases. Vaccine denial has consequences to public health because some people – very young babies and people with compromised immune systems – depend on herd immunity to keep them safe from these diseases. A large number of follow up studies have been performed, none of which found a link between vaccines and childhood autism. The relative safety of vaccines has been shown in multiple further studies. The war simmers on, however, with anti-vaccine proponents taking more extreme and conspiratorial viewpoints as their evidence base is undermined.

Creationism

Creationism is a belief that God designed all creatures on the planet to a plan and that species are immutable. More extreme (yet commonly held) creationist beliefs assert that the world is just 6,000 years old and that the Earth and everything on it was formed by God in literally seven days. This bizarre view flies in the face of evolutionary biology and a host of other scientific disciplines. To convinced creationists, evolution is cast as a godless nihilistic belief in dire conflict with the Bible. Although not particularly a problem in most of Europe (Turkey being a notable exception), battles continues to arise in areas where well-funded Christian or Islamic fundamentalists have a strong political influence. Successive attempts have been made in the US to permit creationism, or one of its many variants, to be taught in public schools.  Most of these attempts have been rejected by various US courts and grassroots skeptical opposition. The issue is important, because it exposes the lengths to which powerfully connected religious organisations will go to interfere with science education and science policy if it conflicts with their dogmas.

Alternative Medicine

Alternative Medicine (a.k.a. Alt-Med, Integrative Medicine and Complementary and Alternative Medicine [CAM]) is a hugely diverse area with many supporters and acolytes. It encompasses a large body of therapies and putative cures where there is either insufficient scientific evidence to establish their efficacy, or where the available science has shown them to be ineffective. Examples of Alt-Med include Chiropractic, Osteopathy, Acupuncture, Homeopathy, Naturopathy, Anthroposophy, Traditional Chinese Medicine, Chelation Therapy and Kinesthesiology to mention just a few. Although much Alt-Med predates modern medicine, it has experienced a come-back over the past few decades. This is, in some ways, a reaction to the systemisation of organised medicine and the inevitable side-effects or downsides of some medical procedures. With little objective evidence available to back up their claims, proponents liberally quote testimonials and anecdotes, antiquity and popularity as proof of effectiveness. Most Alt-Med therapies are promoted as completely safe, which is unsurprising as most of them are mere placebo. Apart from the fact that many Alt-Med proponents make wild, unsubstantiated claims to promote their remedies, there are some serious issues concerning its promotion and use. Alternative Medicine can needlessly prolong suffering. Irresponsible Alt-Med practitioners have, on occasion, dissuaded patients from more beneficial medical therapies. Alt-Med acolytes have been to the fore in preventing useful and necessary medical therapies from being implemented in places where they are badly needed, a harrowing example being the proliferation of AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa (see below).

Global Warming Denial

Scientists have known for a century that an increase in carbon dioxide can cause an increase in heat absorption in the atmosphere. Nevertheless, a convincing case for warming, and particularly man-made warming, has taken a long time to establish. Warming on a planetary scale is a slow and complex process, so a vast amount of data needs to be collected over decades. Even in the last 100 years, Earth’s temperature has fluctuated greatly, but the underlying trend is unmistakeable. Multiple lines of evidence point to a warming trend that can’t fully be explained through natural factors such as the sun, but which correlate very well with mankind’s increasing demand for fossil fuels. It used to be that global warming and climate change was a relatively uncontroversial part of the sciences. Due to recent international reports and agreements, it is now highly polarised and politicised, despite the fact that the great majority of climate scientists have become convinced by the scientific data now available. Climate scientists have been vilified by certain sections of the media while propaganda services, masquerading as independent think-tanks, receive massive funding from vested interests to cast doubt on the global warming findings. The tactics being used by deniers are almost identical to creationists, and tobacco illness deniers before them. Global Warming denial has become a statement of faith amongst the US Republican party, pitting science against ideology. Given the entrenched views, it could be decades before the issue is resolved: time that could be better used translating the scientific findings into useful action.

HIV/AIDS denial

AIDS is one of the great scourges of our age. Caused by a fast-mutating virus with a long incubation period, it is a very difficult disease to control and manage. Left untreated, it is almost always deadly.  According to the World Health Organisation, over 25 million people have died from the pandemic. Fortunately, anti-retroviral drugs have been developed that contain the illness, often offering many years of extra life to people infected with HIV. Despite this, AIDS researchers and activists have been engaged in a long battle with people who claim that HIV is not the cause of AIDS. These HIV deniers scored their biggest successes in South Africa, where, despite the epidemic growing to alarming proportions within the population, the Mbeki government refused to sanction or support anti-retroviral treatment for the illness. Given solid scientific and international support, HIV denialism has diminished as a major issue, with some of its more prominent supporters moving on to other fields of research.

Witch Hunting

Witch hunting is based on a belief that certain people are using magical powers or indulging in occult rituals in order to disrupt society. Accused people, blamed for everything from crop failure to illnesses or unexpected deaths, may be persecuted, ostracised, injured and sometimes killed – all because of a shared delusion among the community. As it is a “guilty until proven innocent” form of indictment, it can be enormously difficult for accused people to clear their name. Although widespread witch hunting disappeared from most societies many centuries ago, it continues to make its presence felt in some areas of the world. In the last decade, childrenalbinos and elderly people have been targeted as witches in Africa, often with tragic and fatal consequences. Similar stories have emerged in IndiaSaudi Arabia and the UK.

Cancer Quackery

While we could lump it in with the rest of Alt-Med, cancer quackery deserves its own special place on this list. Cancer remains one of the greatest problems besetting humanity in this century. Although there has been some progress over the last 40 years in the fight against cancer, far too many people have had their lives cut short by it, or, more precisely, the many different afflictions collectively labeled as cancer. No-one is immune: from leading cancer doctors, to pharmaceutical executives, to cancer quacks themselves; belying the main contention of the alternative cancer cure lobby that somehow an elite group are keeping the best stuff to themselves. Cancer quacks prey on the most vulnerable people, often demanding huge fees, while providing no convincing evidence of efficacy. While it is understandable that people in such situations will be willing to try almost anything, often the only long term “positive” outcome is the enrichment of charlatans. Cancer, along with many diseases that are difficult to cure, is an enormous challenge for medical research. The doctors, researchers and specialists simply haven’t yet figured out how to treat and cure many of these diseases. The trouble is, neither have the quacks. They are just better at pretending they do, and they have lucrative financial incentives.

Psychic Counselling

Psychics – people who claim to have supernatural knowledge or powers – come in many shapes and sizes. Psychics have made tidy fortunes through one-to-one counselling, as psychic performers in front of large audiences, or more recently through lucrative phone services. Psychics claim abilities that have never been verified through independent, objective testing. The techniques used are identical to mentalists, yet mentalists never claim to have psychic abilities. It’s easy to dismiss this as part of the normal patchwork of modern life, but in practice, psychics are often dealing with people who may be at a low ebb in their lives, or dealing with traumatic issues such as bereavement, illness or a relationship breakdown. They may benefit more, in the long run, from counselling by properly qualified professionals using evidence based techniques. Psychic counselling shares similar issues with alternative medicine in that there is a strong risk that valuable time is lost consulting psychics when potentially more fruitful avenues could have been used, or that psychics, convinced of their own powers, actively dissuade clients from other treatment options. There is a long list of people who have been manipulated and defrauded by psychics, or provided with information that has subsequently turned out to be utterly untrue.


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Trust Me, I’m A Scientist: A Talk by Eoin Lettice

On Friday 18th February, we will host a talk by Eoin Lettice entitled Trust Me, I’m A Scientist: Gentically Modified (GM) Crops and the Public Perception of Science.

With an increasing demand for high-yielding crop varieties, the genetic modification of plants is seen by many as part of the solution. However, with serious opposition in some quarters to GM technology, has there been a failure by scientists to communicate the benefits and risks of GM properly to the public? This talk will look at public perceptions of science and at how science is communicated. Particular focus will be on the area of genetically modified crops and how the public perceive them.

About the speaker: Eoin Lettice is a lecturer in the School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences (BEES), University College Cork. His research and teaching focus is on plant pathology and plant biotechnology. He also writes the Communicate Science blog, which was nominated for an Irish Blog Award, Irish Web Award and shortlisted for an Eircom Spider Award in 2010.

The talk will begin at 8pm on Friday February 18th, in Blackrock Castle Observatory, which is close to the Mahon Point Shopping Centre. Everyone is welcome and the talk is free to attend.
Please see our Skeptics In The Castle page for directions to the Castle.

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