Archive for July, 2009

Gates-Crashing, ctd

Colin Powell, who I have a lot of respect for, makes some reasonable points about how Gates probably should have used more discretion.  He’s right that it may have helped.  But what he doesn’t seem to recognize (or say) is that Gates is under no obligation to use discretion.  It is up to the police officers to practice it.  Sure it’s the civil thing to do to act politely to police officers (and certainly it is smarter if you aren’t looking to deal with the potential negatives) but sorry civil rights and civil liberties trump civility.

Embedded video from CNN Video

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Simon Can’t Say

Science writer Simon Singh wrote the following letter in The Guardian criticizing chiropractic therapy.  He is being sued by the British Chiropractic Association for libel.  Many news outlets and blogs are reprinting his piece as an act of solidarity and to stand up for free speech/freedom of press.  I’m doing so for the same reasons and because of its important content.

Some practitioners claim it is a cure-all, but the research suggests chiropractic therapy has mixed results – and can even be lethal, says Simon Singh.

You might be surprised to know that the founder of chiropractic therapy, Daniel David Palmer, wrote that “99% of all diseases are caused by displaced vertebrae”. In the 1860s, Palmer began to develop his theory that the spine was involved in almost every illness because the spinal cord connects the brain to the rest of the body. Therefore any misalignment could cause a problem in distant parts of the body.

In fact, Palmer’s first chiropractic intervention supposedly cured a man who had been profoundly deaf for 17 years. His second treatment was equally strange, because he claimed that he treated a patient with heart trouble by correcting a displaced vertebra.

You might think that modern chiropractors restrict themselves to treating back problems, but in fact some still possess quite wacky ideas. The fundamentalists argue that they can cure anything, including helping treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying – even though there is not a jot of evidence.

I can confidently label these assertions as utter nonsense because I have co-authored a book about alternative medicine with the world’s first professor of complementary medicine, Edzard Ernst. He learned chiropractic techniques himself and used them as a doctor. This is when he began to see the need for some critical evaluation. Among other projects, he examined the evidence from 70 trials exploring the benefits of chiropractic therapy in conditions unrelated to the back. He found no evidence to suggest that chiropractors could treat any such conditions.

But what about chiropractic in the context of treating back problems? Manipulating the spine can cure some problems, but results are mixed. To be fair, conventional approaches, such as physiotherapy, also struggle to treat back problems with any consistency. Nevertheless, conventional therapy is still preferable because of the serious dangers associated with chiropractic.

In 2001, a systematic review of five studies revealed that roughly half of all chiropractic patients experience temporary adverse effects, such as pain, numbness, stiffness, dizziness and headaches. These are relatively minor effects, but the frequency is very high, and this has to be weighed against the limited benefit offered by chiropractors.

More worryingly, the hallmark technique of the chiropractor, known as high-velocity, low-amplitude thrust, carries much more significant risks. This involves pushing joints beyond their natural range of motion by applying a short, sharp force. Although this is a safe procedure for most patients, others can suffer dislocations and fractures.

Worse still, manipulation of the neck can damage the vertebral arteries, which supply blood to the brain. So-called vertebral dissection can ultimately cut off the blood supply, which in turn can lead to a stroke and even death. Because there is usually a delay between the vertebral dissection and the blockage of blood to the brain, the link between chiropractic and strokes went unnoticed for many years. Recently, however, it has been possible to identify cases where spinal manipulation has certainly been the cause of vertebral dissection.

Laurie Mathiason was a 20-year-old Canadian waitress who visited a chiropractor 21 times between 1997 and 1998 to relieve her low-back pain. On her penultimate visit she complained of stiffness in her neck. That evening she began dropping plates at the restaurant, so she returned to the chiropractor. As the chiropractor manipulated her neck, Mathiason began to cry, her eyes started to roll, she foamed at the mouth and her body began to convulse. She was rushed to hospital, slipped into a coma and died three days later. At the inquest, the coroner declared: “Laurie died of a ruptured vertebral artery, which occurred in association with a chiropractic manipulation of the neck.”

This case is not unique. In Canada alone there have been several other women who have died after receiving chiropractic therapy, and Edzard Ernst has identified about 700 cases of serious complications among the medical literature. This should be a major concern for health officials, particularly as under-reporting will mean that the actual number of cases is much higher.

If spinal manipulation were a drug with such serious adverse effects and so little demonstrable benefit, then it would almost certainly have been taken off the market.

Simon Singh is a science writer in London and the co-author, with Edzard Ernst, of Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial. This is an edited version of an article published in The Guardian for which Singh is being personally sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association.

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According to Judge Napolitano (on Fox News) the police violated the a constitutional right by going into Gates’s home.

I hope this is the start of this issue actually being discussed in the mainstream media.

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Defenders of Islam

He doesn’t always come off in the best light but he’s often right on. I couldn’t find anything I disagreed with – anyone who would defend a fascist-like ideology really is a moron.

Constitutional "Gates"

I haven’t really thought too much about the ongoing Gates affair other than it seemed like Gates was being a bit oversensitive but that the police officer really should not have arrested him.  This clearly shouldn’t be more than a local issue and the President of all people should not have involved himself.  Of course the issue lets both sides of the racial questions blather on about how obvious it is that the other side is wrong, racist, or race-bating.  These types of disputes don’t interest me all that much but when I saw Hitchens had a new Slate column on the issue I was intrigued to see what he had to say.  Intrigued but a little disappointed that it was this of all issues he was writing about – until I read it.  Great column; and made me think in a new way about the issue (which is why I read Hitch.)  

There is absolutely no legal requirement to be polite in the defense of this right. And such rights cannot be negotiated away over beer.

Race or color are second-order considerations in this, if they are considerations at all. […] Professor Gates should have taken his stand on the Bill of Rights and not on his epidermis or that of the arresting officer, and, if he didn’t have the presence of mind to do so, that needn’t inhibit the rest of us. 
This incident highlights the more important issue of constitutional rights, not racial politics.  Also if anything, treating this issue in terms of its more serious components, not superficial concerns over skin color, can only help us get past that national complex. 
Radley Balko over at also takes the constitutional tract rather than the racial one on the Gates-Gate.  
The arrest of Harvard African-American Studies Professor Henry Louis Gates has certainly got everyone talking. Unfortunately, everyone’s talking about the wrong issue. 

Police officers deserve the same courtesy we afford anyone else we encounter in public life—basic respect and civility. If they’re investigating a crime, they deserve cooperation as required by law, and beyond that only to the extent to which the person with whom they’re speaking is comfortable. Verbally disrespecting a cop may well be rude, but in a free society we can’t allow it to become a crime, any more than we can criminalize criticism of the president, a senator, or the city council. There’s no excuse for the harassment or arrest of those who merely inquire about their rights, who ask for an explanation of what laws they’re breaking, or who photograph or otherwise document police officers on the job.

What we owe law enforcement is vigilant oversight and accountability, not mindless deference and capitulation. Whether or not Henry Louis Gates was racially profiled last week doesn’t change any of that.

God’s Obituary

Back in 1999 for The Economist’s millennium issue they printed a tongue-in-cheek obituary for God.  Obviously it was a play off of the famous “God is Dead” from Nietzsche and Time.  Although both seemed a bit premature for sure, they are both interesting in retrospect.  To be fair to The Economist they left the question of his death a bit of a mystery anyway.

Ever fewer westerners share the church’s—or the synagogue’s—beliefs, and far fewer still attend their services. Yet outside the rarefied world of thinkers, remarkably few deny the possibility of a supreme being; less than 10% of Americans. In Muslim and Hindu societies, the thought is barely heard.

The test will come on Judgment Day, when man, we are told, will meet his maker. Or will it be God meeting his?

I bring this up now because The Reason Project added that article to their archive after I submitted it.  

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Economic history visualized

The Economist explains the last 50 years of economic history in America.

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Science vs Religion; Sam Harris on Francis Collins

In an op-ed in the New York Times Sam Harris questions the decision to nominate Francis Collins to be the director of the National Institutes of Health.  

Dr. Collins has written that “science offers no answers to the most pressing questions of human existence” and that “the claims of atheistic materialism must be steadfastly resisted.”

One can only hope that these convictions will not affect his judgment at the institutes of health. After all, understanding human well-being at the level of the brain might very well offer some “answers to the most pressing questions of human existence” — questions like, Why do we suffer? Or, indeed, is it possible to love one’s neighbor as oneself? And wouldn’t any effort to explain human nature without reference to a soul, and to explain morality without reference to God, necessarily constitute “atheistic materialism”?

He doesn’t question the man’s credentials, which are largely beyond dispute, but rather whether some of his religious views will stifle promising research fields.  Francis Collins seems to be a competent administrator and he isn’t a crazy religious wacko; he believes in evolution and recognizes the universe is close to 14 billion years old.  But one wonders if he would have been nominated if he didn’t have his religious credentials either.  Is President Obama trying to prove something as he is with his constant references to God in his speeches? No one wants to bar Collins because of his religion as has been suggested and troubles some.  It is the contents of some of his specific beliefs that trouble Harris and others which may affect his directorship.  

But as director of the institutes, Dr. Collins will have more responsibility for biomedical and health-related research than any person on earth, controlling an annual budget of more than $30 billion. He will also be one of the foremost representatives of science in the United States. 

I doubt he would have been nominated if he was an outspoken atheist rather than an outspoken evangelical Christian?  That, sadly, doesn’t seem to trouble as many.  
[In 2006 Sam Harris also reviewed Francis Collins’ book when it first came out]
[Jerry Coyne on Sam Harris’s op-ed and Francis Collins generally]

Atheism and The Dish

Over at Andrew Sullivan’s blog there has been a lot of back and forth on the topic of “new atheism.”  This last post compiles all (or most?) of those blog posts in one place.  

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What I hear

The Onion ‘reports’ on the American presidential convention of ending speeches with “God bless America.”  This pretty much accurately summarizes how I feel when I hear presidents tact that on.  

“Thank you, and may God bless America,” said the clearly insecure president, who, by seeking the aid of an imaginary being who is neither his ancestor nor someone with whom he shares a tangible harmonious relationship, freely admitted that he has little faith in himself and his inept team of jester advisers.

Plus it’s funny.  

HT: The Reason Project
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