Cork Skeptics

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


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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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Where’s The Harm: Dr. Stephen Makin & Ben Makin of Edinburgh Skeptics Discuss Alternative Medicine

Alternative Medicine: Sat 14th July ay Blackrock Castle Observatory

On Saturday 14th July, Dr. Stephen Makin and Ben Makin of the Edinburgh Skeptics will deliver what promises to be a fascinating talk on the anecdotes and evidence surrounding alternative medicine. This talk will begin at 8.00pm at CIT Blackrock Castle Observatory.

Ben Makin has tried a complete alphabet of traditional, complimentary and New Age treatments and practices. She will take us on a rapid tour of alternative and complimentary medicine, from Applied Kinesiology to Zen Buddhism, and ask “Where’s the harm?”

Dr Stephen Makin will reply, looking at the evidence and discussing cases where real harm has been done by alternative practices, and explaining why skeptics should continue to fight against quackery and cons.

Ben Makin was raised on goats’ milk and home-made wholemeal bread and started her working life at Culpepper’s the Herbalist; she now maintains the Edinburgh Skeptics website.

Stephen Makin was raised on soya milk and meditation, and ran away to Medical School to become a doctor. He is a Clinical Research Fellow in Stroke Medicine at Edinburgh University who spends too much time arguing with proponents of woo on the internet.

 

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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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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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How effective are health food supplements?

At her talk last week, Rebecca O’Neill mentioned a number of websites that might be of assistance if you are interested in the effectiveness of food supplements.

The first website, an infographic from the Information Is Beautiful site, is particularly eye-catching. Above the “worth it” line is a relatively small list of the supplements that have been shown to be effective in particular defined cases. Below the line is a longer list of supplements where the jury is out on their effectiveness. Some of the same supplements appear in multiple places: so, while garlic can be helpful with blood pressure conditions, it has no proven link with the treatment of cancer. Clicking on any bubble brings you to a related study where you can get more information.

It should be mentioned that this is a starting point only. It goes without saying that if you suspect you have a medical condition, it is worth seeking assistance from a qualified medical professional before embarking on a course of supplements.

Donal O’Mahuna’s site, Bioethics Ireland, provides information on a large number of herbal remedies and alternative treatments. It’s a very useful source of information if you are looking for more facts on a particular supplement or remedy.

Mention should also be given to Edzard Ernst’s and Simon Singh’s bestselling book “Trick or Treatment” (Eason / Amazon / Waterstones) where alternative remedies are put under the microscope.

Finally, here is the audio of Rebecca’s talk to Cork Skeptics. It’s well worth a listen.

[MP3]


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Confessions of a Former Health Food Shop Worker: A Talk by Rebecca O’Neill of the Dublin Skeptics

Confessions Of A Former Healt Care Worker - Friday March 16, 8.00PM

ATTENTION SHOPPERS! Our next meeting takes place on Friday 16th March, at Blackrock Castle Observatory, starting at 8.00pm. The talk is by Rebecca O’Neill, founder of Dublin Skeptics In The Pub, podcaster with The Skeprechauns, and all-round science enthusiast nerd.

Confessions of a Former Health Food Shop Worker: Three and a half years behind the counter in a health food shop can be a learning experience in more ways than one. From vitamins and minerals to the latest celebrity-endorsed wonder supplement, no main street or shopping centre is complete without a purveyor of alternative therapies. Likewise, there are very few people who don’t associate vitamin C or echinacea with the treatment of colds or flu. If these ideas are so pervasive, one question is why? What is it about the sellers of these therapies that make them seem so valid or trustworthy?

Well, take it from a former believer: the answer is definitely not black and white.

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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Our June Talk by Dr. Marcin Szczerbinski

Science and Pseudoscience in the Treatment of Special Educational Needs

Friday 17th June at Blackrock Castle Observatory, Cork

Some children experience significant difficulties in aspects of their psychological development, making it hard for them to achieve their full potential inside the mainstream school curriculum. Those developmental difficulties can be elusive—hard to diagnose or even define precisely—and hard to treat. Naturally, there is no shortage of those who claim to have found the solution—wonderfully simple and effective— and who try to sell it to (often desperate) parents, teachers, psychologists or speech therapists. What these consumers need is the ability to critically evaluate the therapeutic products that are being marketed to them.

In this talk, Dr. Marcin Szczerbinski of the UCC Applied Psychology department will offer a brief overview of special educational needs—their symptoms and causes—as currently understood by the mainstream scientific community. The talk will cover subjects such as dyslexia, dyscalculia, dyspraxia, ADHD and autism. He will then suggest some rules of thumb that will allow us to evaluate the competing therapeutic proposals, helping to differentiate those that are plausible from those that are almost certainly a waste of time.

The boundaries between evidence-based therapy and its dubious alternatives can be fuzzy. Even bona fide scientists are often guilty of over-selling the genuine remedies they offer. Dr. Szczerbinski will discuss the effectiveness of widely known therapies, such as Educational Kinesiology and Brain Gym as part of the talk, questioning how effective they are in reality.

About The Speaker: Dr. Marcin Szczerbinski is a psychologist, a graduate of the Jagiellonian University, Kraków, and University College London. He has taught psychology and research methods at the University of Sheffield, before moving to the UCC earlier this year. He researches developmental dyslexia, among other things.

Venue & Time: This talk will begin at 8.00pm on Friday 17th June, in Blackrock Castle Observatory. 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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Herbal Medicines – AVAAZ have got it dead wrong

On the 28th of April, AVAAZ, a very prominent campaigning group on the Internet, launched a petition to stop the EU from implementing a new directive concerning the distribution and sale of herbal medicines.

The directive has been implemented following long-standing concerns over the side-effects of certain herbal medicines, and a desire to provide more protection to the consumer. The directive came into force in 2004, with the marketing of non-licenced products permitted up to the 1st of May this year.

The legislation is quite watered down. It is not an outright ban. It does not apply to herbal products that have been around for more than 30 years. Products sold after consultation with a herbalist are exempted. Products already on sale can remain on the shelf until their expiry date. Crucially, the directive only covers product safety, not efficacy. No evidence from clinical trials needs to be presented, only evidence that the products are safe for use. This is a long way from the standards expected for medicinal products and would be more akin to the large number of directives setting out standards and proper codes of practice for food safety.

Opposition to the directive boils down to a reluctance within the traditional medicine / herbal medicine industry to have any standards imposed on them whatsoever. It’s an odd thing, therefore, that AVAAZ have taken such a hysterical position on the issue. Using the fallacious argument that people “have a right to choose among all remedies and medicines that can keep ourselves and our families healthy”, they have argued for a “massive outcry” against the EU’s “draconian measures”. As of time of writing they have succeeded in getting over 700,000 signatures on their website.

AVAAZ often gets it right. They campaigned relentlessly (and successfully) for the commuting of Sakineh Ashtiani’s death sentence by stoning at the hands of the Iranian Government. They have highlighted the plight of gay people in Africa. They have launched efforts to expose government corruption. All good stuff. Nevertheless, on a matter of basic health safety, citing the welfare of herbalists over the consumer, they have got it dead wrong.

For more information on the directive, check out Sinead’s blog entry.

* Image via US Army Korea – IMCOM (CC Licensed)