Saturday, April 14, 2007

The God Delusion

I just finished reading Richard Dawkins latest book "The God Delusion". There are 711 reviews of this book on Amazon and many, many more if you google the title. I generally don't like non-fiction books, but I've finished two of them in the last two weeks. "The God Delusion" and "Six Frigates" by Ian Toll. Most of the reviews of The God Delusion on Amazon are positive. The negative reviews seem to be written by those whose minds cannot or will not be changed. From the comment of many of those that gave the book a poor review you could tell they didn't read the book.

This book is a quick and enjoyable read...some parts easier to follow than others. But on the whole he makes a very sound, rational argument that God doesn't exist. It is a book that I'd like to own.

Some of the parts I really enjoyed were the discussions of the effects of prayer on the recovery of sick individuals. He even mentioned my "look alike" Francis Galton (chap. 2). I liked the way he handled Thomas Aquinas' "proofs" of God's existence (Chap. 3). The discussion of the roots of religion (chap. 5) was awesome, especially the discussion of the "Cargo cults". Of course you know that any discussion of the "morality" of the Old Testament is going to be a knee slapper.

I particularly liked this discussion of Michael Behe and irreducible complexity. I didn't realize that Behe had claimed that science would never find an evolutionary explanation for the immune system. During a cross examination in a court case he was presented with 58 peer-reviewed publications, 9 books and several immunology textbook chapters about the evolution of the immune system. But Prof. Behe insisted that this was not sufficient evidence of evolution and that it was not good enough. When Behe was cross-examined, he was forced to admit that he hadn't read most of those 58 peer-reviewed papers (chap. 4, pg 133).

Dawkins discussed the who designed the designer question. I never spent much time thinking about that question because I was taught the answer to that question in my first grade in Catholic School. God is the supreme being who made all things. He always was and always will be. Pretty simple actually...he just always was.

If you are agnostic before you read this book, I'm pretty certain you will be an atheist after reading it.


An NCPR program alerted me to this website. It's the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. It has a genocide alert map in the upper right corner. Click on specific places and it provides you with a lot of information (and photos) where genocide is Darfur

Friday, April 13, 2007

Winning the Iraq War

Just what is it that conservatives think is so bad about the 124 billion dollar Iraq Supplemental Funding bill passed by congress a few weeks ago? Here's what the bill does:
The bill would establish strict standards for resting, training and equipping combat troops before their deployment and lay down binding benchmarks for the Iraqi government, such as assuming control of security operations, quelling sectarian violence and more equitably distributing oil revenue. If progress is not made toward those benchmarks, some troops would be required to come home as early as July. In any event, troop withdrawals would have to begin in March 2008, with all combat forces out by Aug. 31, 2008.
So do conservatives disagree that the troops should be rested, trained and properly equipped? Do they disagree that the Iraqi government should assume control of security operations? Haven't we been promised for at least the last two years that this is exactly what they would do? Do conservatives disagree that progress should be made towards those benchmarks? I doubt any of those things are what they disagree with. Conservatives want our troops to remain in Iraq until we "win" the war. Unfortunately, they are unwilling or unable to define what "win" means. Look how the definition of "winning" the war in Iraq has changed over the last 4 years.

Somebody has to have a plan and take charge of this disaster. Bush certainly isn't capable of doing so. Now Bush is looking for a War Czar to oversee the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is surprising seeing how Bush loves to point out that he is the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. Isn't he the "War Czar". His Sec. of Defense, Sec. of State, and Joint Chiefs aren't enough?

Fair and Balanced?

Does anyone REALLY believe that Fox News is "Fair and Balanced"? Is that really what Sen. Obama said? Not even close. What he actually said was "I think that nobody wants to play chicken with our troops on the ground."

Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Scientific Method

First, what is science? I like this definition by James Randi:

Science is best defined as a careful, disciplined, logical search for knowledge about any and all aspects of the universe, obtained by examination of the best available evidence and always subject to correction and improvement upon discovery of better evidence. What's left is magic. And it doesn't work. --

Scientists use a process to construct a realistic, repeatable, accurate model of the natural world called the scientific method. This method is used because scientists realize that personal beliefs and biases can influence interpretation of data and experimental results. This only works if you accept that there is an objective reality that is the same for everyone.

It works something like this:

1. Observation and description of a phenomenon.

2. Formulation of an hypothesis to explain the phenomenon. A good hypothesis contains a testable, measurable, plausible mechanism which may cause the phenomenon.
An hypothesis is a best guess, working assumption or prediction of what causes a phenomenon. Without doing an experiment the hypothesis doesn't explain anything. Automobile mechanics make hypotheses all the time in diagnosing what is wrong with your car. The hypothesis has to be plausible. Stating the car won't start because it's the first Tuesday in April doesn't cut it as an hypothesis.
3. Use the hypothesis to make predictions.
An experiment has got to be properly designed such that it excludes personal
bias and includes the proper experimental controls. You cannot include some
data obtained from an experiment and exclude other data from the same
experiment just because it does or does not support the hypothesis.
4. Test the hypothesis using experimentation and modify the hypothesis based on experimental results.

5. Repeat steps 3 and 4.

Proper controls are an absolute necessity in a properly designed experiment. The control and experimental groups must be identical in all aspects except for the introduction of a variable or suspected causal agent into the experimental group. Effects seen in the experimental group should not be seen in the control group.

Members of the control and experimental groups should be assigned randomly. Even better are randomized, double blind studies. In this type of experiment neither the researcher or the subject knows whether they are in the control or experimental group until the end of the study.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

More St. Lawrence University Buildings

Richardson Hall (1856). This used to be the entire university...classrooms and dorm. It's now the English Department and Religious studies. It's on the National Register of Historic Places.

Carnegie Hall was built in 1906. It's now the home to Languages and International Studies departments.

Paul Smith's College and Empire State Development

WNBZ news announced this morning that Empire State Development has awarded Paul's Smith College a grant of 2.25 million dollars. $1.5 million for renovation of it's athletic complex and $750,000 for costs associated with the startup of a 4 year nursing program.

There are questions about how PSC came about receiving the grant money. Was it through a grant application or via political connections? The mission of ESD is to help NYS businesses start up a company in New York State; relocate to or establish a presence in New York State; expand already existing operations in New York State; retain and enlarge their work force in New York State and compete more effectively and profitably in the domestic and international marketplace. It's not clearly stated how one goes about receiving their largess.

PSC likely fits into the funding scheme under the category of expanding already existing operations or enlarging their work force. But, realistically, a new nursing program might result in the new hire of 2-3 new full-time instructors and an administrator or 2. In the short term construction workers will be needed.

Why would the State fund a new nursing program in the area when a State Community College (NCCC) in Saranac Lake already has a program? And, funding a new nursing program when finding places in the North Country to place student nurses for training is already difficult. Surely a college that costs over $27,000 a year to attend can raise funds privately from their alumni. There are few families in the Tri-Lakes area that can afford that much tuition. On the other hand, NCCC costs about $10,000 a year for students that live on their own.

Subsidizing private institutions with taxpayers money just doesn't seem kosher. Especially in an area where so many people are already suffering from high taxes.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Why Seek Complementary and Alternative Medical Treatment?

There is a really good review of this question by Barry L. Beyerstein here. I'll list a few of his thoughts. It turns out that people with more education seek alternative therapies than those with less education.

it was the realization that shortcomings of perception, reasoning, and memory will often lead us to comforting rather than true conclusions that led the pioneers of modern science to substitute controlled, interpersonal observations and formal logic for the anecdotes and surmise that can so easily lead us astray.

CAM remains, for the most part, “alternative” because its practitioners depend on subjective reckoning and user testimonials rather than scientific research to support what they do. They remain outside the scientific fold because most of their hypothesized mechanisms contradict well-established principles of biology, chemistry or physics.
Beyerstein asks if an unorthodox therapy is implausible on a priori grounds, lacks a scientifically-acceptable rationale of its own, has insufficient supporting evidence derived from adequately controlled outcome research, has failed in well-controlled clinical studies done by impartial evaluators and has been unable to rule out competing explanations for why it might seem to work in uncontrolled settings and should seem improbable, even to the lay person, on “common sense” grounds...why would so many well-educated people continue to sell and purchase such a treatment?

1. The low level of scientific literacy among the public at large. (When consumers haven’t the foggiest idea how bacteria, viruses, prions, oncogenes, carcinogens, and environmental toxins wreak havoc on bodily tissues, shark cartilage, healing crystals, and pulverized tiger penis seem no more magical than the latest breakthrough from the biochemistry lab. )

2. An increase in anti-intellectualism and anti-scientific attitudes riding on the coattails of New Age mysticism. (CAM is permeated with the New Age movement’s magical and subjective view of the universe)

3. Vigorous marketing of extravagant claims by the “alternative” medical community. (Strong profit motives like for Weil and Kabat-Zinn)

4. Inadequate media scrutiny and attacking critics. (you wouldn't want to hurt bidness)

5. Increasing social malaise and mistrust of traditional authority figures-the anti-doctor backlash.

6. The Will to Believe. (We all exhibit a willingness to endorse comforting beliefs )

7. Logical Errors and Lack of a Control Group. (mistaking correlation with causation)

8. Judgmental Shortcomings. (who cares what your research shows, it worked for me)

9. Psychological distortion of reality. (Distortion of perceived reality in the service of strong belief is a common occurrence)

10. Self-serving biases and demand characteristics. (None of us wishes to admit to ourselves or others that we believe foolish things)

The Rise of Complementary Medicine

A guest column, by George J. Bryjak, in Monday's Adirondack Daily Enterprise is reprinted below.

According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), a significant number of Americans are experimenting with or using “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) as their primary health care treatment.

Working alongside conventional Western Medicine (WM), complementary medicine includes acupuncture, homeopathic medicine, naturopathic medicine and massage therapy. Alternative medicine rejects much if not all WM and its treatments. For example, some alternative practitioners prescribe special diets to combat cancer in lieu of surgery or chemotherapy.

A 2002 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services survey of 31,144 adults found that 36 percent of respondents had utilized some form of CAM therapy in the past 12 months. The number of people using CAM either in addition to or in place of WM will increase dramatically in the coming years for a host of reasons.

1. Rising cost of WM — Both the cost of medical insurance and prescription drugs continue to climb. This is a powerful incentive for many people to try CAM, especially energy enhancing techniques such as tai chi, qi gong and yoga that are relatively inexpensive to learn and practice.

And would'nt the health insurance companies love for everyone to get treated using practitioners of alternative medicine. Think of the money insurance companies could save.

2. The number of uninsured increases — As of 2004 (the latest government data available), about 46 million Americans lacked health insurance, with more middle-class individuals and families inflating that number every year. Whereas 70 percent of all employers offered workers health care insurance in 2000, that figure declined to 60 percent in 2005. Unable to afford WM for anything more than minor health problems, this segment of the population will increasingly explore CAM options.

3. Popularization of nontraditional medicine — In recent years, WM practitioners such as Andrew Weil (M.D., Harvard University) and molecular biologist Jon Kabat-Zinn (professor of medicine emeritus, University of Massachusetts Medical Center) have been on a crusade extolling the benefits of numerous CAM treatments. Weil’s “integrative” approach, combining what he believes are the best aspects of WM and complementary medicine, is currently taught at 31 academic medical centers including Duke University and the Mayo Clinic. Because of their mainstream medicine background and credibility, Weil and Kabat-Zinn reach a wide, receptive audience.

It's only right yet interesting that Andrew Weil is brought up as a major proponent of "complementary medicine". Dr. Weil makes his living being a proponent of "complementary medicine". He is also very careful to be ambiguous in his writing about scientific (Western) and alternative (New Age) medicine. What bothers me about people like Weil is he doesn't necessarily believe that scientific evidence is necessary when truths are self evident. By his own admission he "dropped out" of Western Medicine shortly after completion of medical school. After spending time with a Sioux medicine man in S.D. learning herbal medicine and ritual healing, Weil started practicing yoga, meditation and vegetarianism. Weil claims that much of what knows about disease and healing was learned while he was stoned on psychodelic drugs. An extensive article on Weilman by Dr. Arnold Relman was published in The New Republic in 1998.

Kabat-Zinn is another odd example. Here's a guy that receives training in molecular biology under the tutelage of Luria then basically gives it up to study Buddhist meditative practices and Asian martial arts and yoga. I find it hard to believe that either of these guys have a "wide, receptive audience. At least they are making bucks selling cd's and books.

4. A kinder, gentler WM — Modern medicine’s condescending view of nontraditional healing modalities has been tempered by research demonstrating the efficacy of some CAM treatments. For example, although results of acupuncture studies have been mixed, this ancient Chinese healing practice has proven effective in relieving some forms of pain. A recent University of Texas study found that compared to a control group, women with breast cancer who practiced yoga in conjunction with standard radiation treatments “were in better general health, were less fatigued and had fewer problems with daytime sleepiness.” In short, the quality of life of these women during a difficult period was enhanced.

Accupuncture works by inserting needles into "meridians" (which do not exist) thereby unblocking stoppages in chi (which does not exist). Have some experiments shown that accupuncture alleviates pain - probably. Has a cause and effect been shown? I doubt it.

5. An aging population — With the first wave of baby boomers (individuals born between 1946 and 1964) turning 60, more than 80 million Americans will become senior citizens over the next 25 years. Millions of people in the most educated, affluent generation in American history will attempt to prolong their lives and mitigate the negative consequences of old age and disease using CAM. According to Dr. Andrew Weil, to date, the overwhelming majority of life-extending interventions advocated by practitioners of “anti-aging medicine” lack scientific validation. While most of these methods “may be relatively harmless except to the bank accounts of clients; some may not be.”

6. The powerful vitamin supplement industry — Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), a major component of alternative medicine, relies heavily on herbal remedies for treatment. This is music to the ears of the $20 billion-a-year in sales and largely unregulated (by the FDA) vitamin and supplement industry. As interest in TCM, Auyervedic medicine (from India) and Native American treatments that utilize herbs increases, supplement manufacturers will do all they can to fan the flames of this segment of the CAM movement. With its well funded and highly effective army of Washington, D.C. lobbyists, there is virtually no chance that the vitamin and herbal supplements industry will do anything but grow bigger, stronger and wealthier in the coming years.

Lobbying is the key word here. The lobbies pay the politicians to approve bills written by the lobbyists. An era of patent medicine is upon us again.

7. The body-mind-spirit connection — By the 17th century, Western science had separated the emotional aspects of humankind from the physical body, choosing to cure the latter while all but ignoring the former in the healing process. Likewise, the spiritual component of our well-being was dismissed by WM. By contrast, for more than 2,000 years, TCM and Auyervedic medicine have viewed illness as a fundamental disconnect of body, mind and spirit, with a proper integration of these components the only true way to restore health. In other words, the “whole person” and not just the physical body must be treated. As Americans are among the world’s most religious people (measured by self-proclaimed belief in God and church attendance), they are open to treatment philosophies that accommodate spirituality.

If CAM practitioners are ever to be accepted by Western-trained physicians and scientists, they (CAM practitioners) must play by the rules of the game. That is, their treatment regimes and interventions must be demonstrated to be effective by way of clinical studies. For CAM practitioners to balk at this criteria is both disingenuous and counterproductive. One can’t criticize the ineffectiveness of WM (as many CAM practitioners have done), then fail to demonstrate the efficacy of their own regimens in a controlled setting. The public has a right to know what works and what doesn’t, as well as understand the side effects of both Western medicine and CAM treatments.

Some CAM enthusiasts dream of the day when their healing techniques will supercede WM, relegating modern medicine to “alternative medicine” status. This is not likely to happen, nor should it. If I get hit by a truck or suffer a heart attack or stroke, please take me to the Adirondack Medical Center as opposed to a local acupuncturist. Conversely, as Dr. Andrew Weil notes, patients with a host of maladies including auto-immune diseases (chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia, for example) may receive more long-term benefit from complementary treatments than from Western-style interventions.

WM has been a significant factor in extending life expectancy at birth in this country from 47.3 years in 1900 to 78 years today. Complementary medicine has the potential to make a significant contribution to the well-being of Americans in the 21st century. Hopefully, the public will obtain the best of both curative systems.

George J. Bryjak, resides in Bloomingdale. His wife, Diane, is a licensed marriage and family therapist and a certified yoga instructor.

Species Catalog

Surely everyone is aware of the really big news of the week. The catalog of species has topped one million. A worldwide effort to catalog all known species has been underway for about six years. Hopefully, by 2011, 1.75 million species of living things will be cataloged

There are a couple of places you can go to play around with this data. First, the Integrated Taxonomic Information System allows you to search for taxonomic information about living organisms. It was somewhat of a disappointment to me that there were "no records found" when I entered the genus "Heligmosomoides".

Species 2000 is the other place to go for all things taxonomic. I need to spend more time at these databases because I'm somewhat confused. You can find schistosoma but not onchocerca. You can find ascaris but not trichuris. A search for plasmodium results in no records found. Odd.

Browsing the taxonomic tree can pass some time however. But it too is oddly lacking. Search down through the phylum Apicomplexa down to the genus level and Cryptosporidium is all you find.

An Integrated Prom

The high school seniors in Ashburn, GA are breaking with tradition and are holding an integrated Senior Prom.
"Everybody says that's just how it's always been. It's just the way of this very small town," said James Hall, a 17-year-old black student who is the senior class president.

Students say the self-segregation that splits social circles in school mirrors the attitude of this town of 4,000 people. So getting every student to break from the past could be a difficult task.

With prom night about two weeks away, only half of the 160 upper-class students have bought tickets. And there's talk around the schoolthat some white students might throw a competing party at a nearby lake.
Aren't small town "traditions" wonderful?