Thursday, March 31, 2011

Hate conference, protest at Harvard this weekend

Speaking of Harvard, this weekend it will host a hate conference featuring homophobic Christianists. From the SPLC:
Consider some of the scheduled speakers:

  • Lance Wallnau, a leader in the Seven Mountains movement, who believes that Islam is invading America and that homosexuality, abortion and financial collapse are “an apocalyptic confirmation that when you remove God from public discourse, when you don’t line up your thinking with kingdom principles, you inevitably hit an iceberg like the Titanic and you go down.”

  • Os Hillman, president and founder of a group called Marketplace Leaders Ministries, who is a close friend and financial backer of Julius Oyet, one of the most vocal religious leaders in Uganda in support of the so-called “kill the gays” bill in that African nation. Hillman has also accused the Harry Potter books of pushing a “gay agenda” because character Albus Dumbledore came out.

  • Bill Hamon of the Christian International Ministries Network, who says at the group’s website that God’s word for 2010 included strictly observing Leviticus 20:10, which prescribes death for adulterers.

  • Larry Bizette of the Antioch Family Church, who argues that same-sex couples will destroy the institution of marriage.

  • The conference seems tightly tied to the Seven Mountains movement, and its website highlights a video called “Transforming the Seven Mountains of Culture.” That refers to its adherents’ desire for Christians to gain control of key areas of America life — business, government, media, arts and entertainment, education, family and religion — and extinguish secularism. One of the things that Christians must do is “expel demons” who block the path to achieving this.
    Truth Wins Out has published a protest announcement in the Crimson and organized a protest on Saturday (there’s a link to the FB page in the press release):
    TWO will also co-sponsor a Join the Impact Massachusetts protest against this conference: 12 Noon, Saturday April 2, at the Northwest Science Building (52 Oxford Street, Cambridge, MA). There may also be a student protest on Friday evening, further details, TBA.

    The Science of Cooking at Harvard: course, videos, and job opening

    Others have beaten me to all of this news, but in honor of last night’s Top Chef: All-Stars finale and for those who haven’t heard I’ll mention it…

    Harvard now offers a Science of Cooking class!* The actual class is only open to Harvard undergraduates (an inside look), but accompanying it is a series of public lectures, and happily these are all available on YouTube. Here’s the first one:

    And here’s the link to the channel. (I haven’t had time to watch any yet, but I’m looking forward to it.)

    I learned about this recently when I saw a job ad for a preceptor for the course, which would be a great gig for a scientist with teaching experience and an interest in cooking. Applications are due April 4th!

    * For the record, I did suggest something like this at Pharyngula a couple of years ago.

    Wednesday, March 30, 2011

    Bad CAM research - Dolphin-Assisted Therapy

    The latest issue of Phi Kappa Phi Forum, on the theme of empathy, has a rare (for them :)*) interesting piece by Lori Marino (I’m starting to think there might be something to this name-determination business…) - “Dolphin Assisted Therapy: From Ancient Myth to Modern Snake Oil.”** Marino is a cetacean researcher who's reviewed the history of DAT (“humans swimming and/or interacting with captive dolphins with the intent of treating some mental or physical disorder,” 5) and claims of its efficacy. She argues that not only have the benefits not been scientifically demonstrated but the therapy is harmful to both humans and dolphins.

    DAT, according to Marino, grows out of ancient traditions of human reverence for and attachment to dolphins, leading more recently to dolphins’ status as a “New Age icon” (5). There are DAT facilities worldwide, and she says it continues to increase in popularity. DAT - difficult to separate from recreational “swimming with the dolphins” tourism and “not regulated by any authority overseeing health and safety standards for either humans or dolphins” (5) - is said to be effective in treating any number of ailments:
    Autism and similar developmental disabilities top the list of conditions touted as highly treatable by DAT. Proponents also claim it helps everything from depression and anxiety to infections to neuromuscular disorders to cancer and AIDS…Proponents also assert that DAT provides humans with enhanced concentration (a vague claim unproven scientifically); alters people’s brainwaves therapeutically via the dolphin’s echolocation, the high-pitched sounds the dolphin makes (nothing but pseudoscience); and generally enhances biophilia (a feel-good, New Age love of nature) (5).
    But according to Marino’s and others’ analyses over several years, there is no scientific basis for the claims of DAT proponents and practitioners. The most recent review she mentions is one of her own:
    Marino, Lori, and Scott O. Lilienfeld. 2007. “Dolphin-Assisted Therapy: More Flawed Data and Flawed Conclusions.” Anthrozoös 20 (3): 239-49. [full-text PDF available here]
    (I had to search for the paper myself because, that’s right, the Forum doesn’t have any citations! Believe it or not for a publication targeted to scholars, there are no footnotes, just a box at the bottom of a page in some articles instructing readers: “For footnotes, go online to” So I did, and there aren’t even any citations or suggestions for further reading listed for this piece. This despite the fact that each article is accompanied by a long author biography and illustrated with large pictures - many not directly related to the contents - and those useless semi-abstract graphic things. The publication is of course ultimately at fault for the lack of proper citations, but I suspect they’re the more immediate problem as well, as I wouldn’t expect many authors to shy away from citing their own published work on a subject.)

    The 2007 article reviews five peer-reviewed (how, I have no idea) DAT studies from the previous eight years, assessing the efficacy if DAT in: depression, anxiety, atopic dermatitis, “infantile neurosis,” autism, mental retardation, and general psychological well-being. As summarized in the abstract:
    We found that all five studies were methodologically flawed and plagued by several threats to both internal and construct validity. We conclude that nearly a decade following our initial review, there remains no compelling evidence that DAT is a legitimate therapy or that it affords any more than fleeting improvements in mood (239).
    It’s worthwhile to note that the five studied DAT in a range of conditions, so there really haven’t even been five peer-reviewed studies for any single condition over many years. Any claim of an intervention's efficacy in treating such diverse conditions should automatically be suspect. It’s also important to note that this is a therapeutic intervention whose alleged mechanism for bringing about significant and extended benefits in any of these conditions is, as is typical in this realm, not elaborated in any detail, and for some conditions exceedingly implausible. Wooish beliefs aside, it would be very surprising for people and dolphins – as opposed to people and dogs, for example – to have any special empathy or bond: dolphins are not domesticated and the two species haven’t had much enduring contact. And, as Marino and Lilienfeld describe, these studies are for the most part seriously weak. I’m interested in the specific issues involved, but the review article is worth discussing in a general way in that the problems Marino and Lilienfeld find in the DAT studies seem common to a good deal of CAM research, and shed light on what makes bad (and good!) research.

    In brief, they found major problems with internal and construct validity in these studies. The studies lacked adequate controls, blinding, and follow-up assessments. It’s a short article and can be read at the link above, but I’ll reproduce their list of the areas in which the studies were severely flawed, from Table 1 (242), here (each of the studies had major problems in one or more of these areas):

  • Placebo Effects: Improvement from expectation of improvement

  • [People have expectations of efficacy based on marketing of DAT.]

  • Novelty Effects: Effects of energy, excitement, and enthusiasm not specific to the intended treatment

  • Construct Confounding: Failure to take into account the fact that the procedure may include more than one active ingredient

  • [People were outdoors, in water, interacting with “charismatic” animals, and receiving attention from professionals. There are many aspects of the interaction with the dolphins that would need to be distinguished from one another.]

  • Resentful Demoralization: Participants aware of not receiving the active treatment may be resentful and respond more negatively than the treatment group

  • Demand Characteristics: Tendency of participants to alter their responses in accord with their suspicions about the research hypothesis

  • Experimenter Expectancy Effects: Tendency for experimenter to unintentionally bias the results in accordance with the hypothesis

  • History: Occurrence of potentially therapeutic events other than the intended treatment during the course of the study

  • Testing: Improvements due to testing itself (e.g., practice effects)

  • Regression: Tendency of extreme scores to become less extreme on re-testing

  • Instrumentation: Changes in the dependent measure at different times in the study

  • Multiple Intervention Interference: Administration of treatments other than the intended treatment during the course of the study

  • Maturation: Changes over time due to natural developmental effects

  • Informant Bias: Tendency of informants to selectively recall improvement in accord with their hopes and expectations (retrospective bias) or unintentional distortion of improvement due to effort justification (“the psychological need to justify to oneself the time, expense, and energy invested in the treatment,” 244)

  • The authors contend that people should be informed of the lack of evidence for any beyond the most transitory effects so that they can make informed decisions (248). In the Forum piece, Marino responds to the question, “Who does it hurt?”:
    Some might argue that DAT is not completely devoid of merit because, at the very least, children and adults enjoy interacting with dolphins in a once-in-a-lifetime experience. So, even if DAT provides no scientifically proven salutary benefits whatsoever, who could quarrel with putting a smile, at least temporarily, on the face of a sick child?

    There is more to DAT than meets the eye and when one becomes aware of the tradeoffs, DAT no longer seems benign. The costs are enormous, for humans (except for the practitioners) and dolphins alike, in all sorts of ways (5).
    Marino says that DAT, “[h]awked heavily” to parents of children with autism and other developmental disorders, provides false hope to vulnerable and desperate parents. In addition, it’s expensive – the standard fee, according to Marino, is $5-7000 for a few short sessions over several days and not covered by insurance (a good thing); and may take people’s attention and resources away from other, effective, forms of help. There’s also a real risk of injuries and infections from interacting with these wild animals.

    For the dolphins, captivity and work, according to Marino, “causes debilitating stress, disease and mortality to both the wild-caught and captive-born” (6). Capturing dolphins in the wild (no longer allowed in the US but allowed elsewhere) leads to mass slaughters and the reduction of dolphin populations. Having described complex cetacean social relationships – this was extremely interesting and I would like to read the best work on it, but…no citations offered – she argues (6), “We do not need to attach supernatural qualities to them, for their actual nature is much richer and multidimensional than any human mythology can provide.” I’ll have more to say about this soon….

    *This should not be taken as a dig at them specifically. I generally find the Phi Beta Kappa Key Reporter boring as hell, too.

    **Lori Marino. 2011. “Dolphin Assisted Therapy: From Ancient Myth to Modern Snake Oil.” Phi Kappa Phi Forum 91 (1: Spring): 4-6.

    Interlude - I'm Gonna Make It Alright

    No Sources, No Trust

    Ben Goldacre has a column calling for citations of primary sources in media reports. It’s rather sad that this would even be an issue in 2011* – this minimal standard practice is the least we should expect, especially since those who fail to cite out of mere laziness or sloppiness create a hospitable environment for those intending to deceive** and lead students to have misconceptions about plagiarism.

    Words to live by:

    [I]f you don’t link to primary sources, I just don’t trust you. - Ben Goldacre

    Something else I’d like to see: updates. 60 Minutes frequently annoys me for a variety of reasons (Frontline blows them away), but one particularly irksome practice is the tendency to report, sometimes gushingly, on some allegedly promising co-called innovation or visionary in medicine, education, or “development,” with nary a word later on how the scheme in question has panned out. It would be simple enough to organize their site so as to make it easy to follow stories or investigative areas over time, but they don’t. They could also have update episodes, tracking developments in stories from years past. (Come to think of it, I could do a better job of this here….) Questions of journalistic diligence aside, there’s a lot to be learned by investigating the course of treatments or programs that fail to deliver wholly on their promises and the reasons why.

    Goldacre’s call also reminded me of an infuriating internet phenomenon: the Unsourced Quote Wall. I’ve seen a variety of ideologues – antivaccine activists, MRAs, opponents of animal testing,… - use this tactic, treading a path groomed by journalists who fail to cite primary sources. When I look into the items, I find page after page on Google with the purported quotations or the entire list and without proper (if any) citations. Because of this, it’s often difficult to discover whether anything resembling the quoted text was ever written or stated in the research or by the noted individuals “quoted,” but it appears that in many if not most cases the statements in UQWs are misattributed, quotemined, or made out of whole cloth. Nevertheless, they find their way everywhere. People who present them need to be consistently challenged to provide checkable references.

    The media and internet cultures don’t have to encourage carelessness or fabrication. We can change habits and expectations for the better.

    * (although it would be a fun game to see who can spin the most ridiculous news stories based on article titles)
    ** I believe they’re known publicly as “fabulists” in the UK.

    Thursday, March 24, 2011

    CCR and Honduras Commission of Truth press briefing on FOIA suit

    Via Quotha:

    The Center for Constitutional Rights hosted a press briefing this morning at the National Press Club on the occasion of the filing of a FOIA suit seeking documents pertaining to the 2009 coup in Honduras.

    From the CCR press release:
    Today, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) launched litigation against two United States agencies seeking information relating to the coup d’état in Honduras on June 28, 2009. Also, the Honduran Commission of Truth and CCR announced a separate round of requests for additional documents and records relating to the coup under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). They called for the U.S. administration to cooperate with the requests and support the Commission’s effort which they said could help lead to genuine truth and reconciliation. Initial FOIA requests have been either unanswered, denied or heavily redacted.

    “The events in Honduras cannot be viewed or fully understood in isolation,” said Thomas Loudon, Executive Secretary of the Commission of Truth in Honduras, which was established by the Platform for Human Rights. “Information about the role that various U.S. interests, actors, or agencies may have played in these events is essential to complete the picture, to fully understand how and why this rupture happened, to ensure accountability for the coup and ongoing human rights violations stemming from it.”
    I hope the briefing was recorded.

    Sites I like: reproductive rights and health

    As I develop HYDRA (almost 350 sites!), it continues to be heartening to see the networks being built and work being done on important fronts. Here are a few more resources:

  • The European Pro-Choice Network: a hub with news on reproductive rights not just in Europe but in South Africa, Pakistan, Argentina,...

  • ANSIRH (Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health) blog: intelligent commentary and research from the Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health at UCSF

  • Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health
  • Tuesday, March 22, 2011

    You can turn your cell phone into a microscope?

    That's just very cool.

    Sites I like: health, politics, and fishing

    HYDRA* is now up to almost 250 sites, and I’m enjoying finding new links from recommended sites and being reminded of resources about which I’d forgotten. Here are a few I’ve added recently – focusing on the corporate influence on health, rightwing politics, and sustainable local fisheries – that provide bountiful information and analysis:

  • Healthy Skepticism (see especially “What’s new?”)

  • Corporations and Health Watch

  • In addition to the mainstay Right Wing Watch, there is Political Research Associates, providing analysis of rightwing movements.

  • Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance: news and resources for sustainable fisheries rooted in fishing communities (including Community-Supported Fisheries)

  • * Once again, any suggestions for sites you’ve found to be good resources in your area of interest or expertise would be appreciated.

    Monday, March 21, 2011

    Challenging the psychopharmaceutical revolution: two books

    *This is not a recommendation for anyone to stop taking antidepressants or other drugs. Don’t do this. If you read this or the books and are concerned, talk to your doctor.*

    I’ve been mentioning a couple of books I read recently: Robert Whitaker’s Anatomy of an Epidemic

    (which had been on my radar since I saw him on BookTV several months ago) and Irving Kirsch’s The Emperor’s New Drugs

    Both challenge widely held notions about mental illness and the psychopharmaceutical revolution. They approach the subject from different angles and cover different ground – Whitaker is a science journalist interested in the social and political history of mental illness, while Kirsch is a placebo expert who performed some of the earliest meta-analyses of antidepressants - yet they discuss much of the same scientific literature and converge on a number of central points.

    Both conclude that the “chemical imbalance” model for depression and other conditions that these drugs are alleged (particularly by the multi-billion dollar neuropharmaceutical industry) to correct is simply false. Not only is it not supported by the evidence, but there is a great deal of evidence against it. This notion is deeply entrenched in our thinking about mental illness, with profound consequences. It’s interesting to me that people seem so resistant to questioning it – as I see it, this paints people prescribed these drugs as fundamentally broken, and presents recovery as largely if not entirely passive. It’s disempowering in addition to being just wrong.

    Neither believes these drugs are effective treatments, and both bring numerous arguments and evidence to bear on this point. Kirsch offers a fascinating discussion of placebos and expectations, particularly in mental illness, that moves beyond the dichotomy of physical disease vs. imaginary problem. He contends that all effective therapies for depression are essentially placebos, but argues that in the case of non-drug therapies this is a feature, not a bug. The brain is constantly changing in response to experience and action, and the physiological changes are real. Opposing the chemical imbalance model (like questioning claims about gendered neuro-“hardwiring”) does not mean denying the physicality of the brain; it means approaching the brain’s complexity and plasticity in all of its magnificence. Again, this is, as far as I’m concerned, positive information that reflects reality.

    Kirsch, a therapist, discusses questions of ethics with regard to placebos, with all of this complexity in mind. He asks, if antidepressants are really functioning placebos, what’s the harm in recommending or prescribing them to depressed people? In addition to problems involving the therapeutic trust relationship, expense, and a preference for more participatory therapies, he notes the often serious side effects of these drugs. Whitaker also discusses these in depth, and goes further to examine what the drugs actually do in the brain. He contends that rather than fixing a chemical imbalance they introduce a pathology, and explains how.

    This is, Whitaker argues, what’s behind the bad long-term outcomes for people on the drugs – in addition to the serious side effects, he says, the drugs put people at greater risk for chronicity and more severe forms of the condition - e.g., they lead to depression becoming bipolar disorder, and to rapid cycling, which he claims was virtually unheard of prior to their introduction.

    This argument forms part of the larger historical case Whitaker attempts to make: that not only have these drugs not proven to be the miracle that did away with mental “diseases,” but that their use has contributed to a staggering epidemic of mental illness. This is a complicated story involving changing diagnostic criteria and social policy, and none of the variables is truly independent, but he argues that much of what we’re seeing in terms of mental illness and related disability is iatrogenic. It’s a more difficult argument to make, and I’d like to read his book Mad in America to see if he provides more information from the pre-drug era, but it’s compelling. What isn’t discussed enough, if he’s correct, is how lasting this is – what the prospects are for long-term recovery - if the drugs are stopped; I don’t think good data exist to answer that question.

    The most disturbing part of Whitaker’s book is the section on children. Frighteningly, this is also one of the most thoroughly documented. What surprised me when I first brought this up in a comment thread was the resistance to the arguments even in the context of discussing children, and even after I linked to a small selection of the evidence from Whitaker’s site. I mean, if it’s correct that these drugs are ineffective and extremely dangerous for children, prescribing them is a terrible thing to do and making children take them is a violation of their rights and a form of abuse, with potentially far more damaging long-term effects than other forms. The evidence he provides (including, incidentally, noting things like this) certainly makes a case for stepping back and examining this very critically.

    The good news, according to both authors, is that some non-drug treatments are effective, and have few or no long-term side effects and dramatically better long-term outcomes. Neither proposes a magic bullet or suggests that everyone can be cured, but of course even if there were no alternatives beyond active placebo, that wouldn’t make the drugs any safer or more effective. It would strengthen the case for more research on and evidence-based evaluation of treatment programs. As someone who finds the drug story weak and disempowering, I see understanding this history as therapeutic in itself. Later in his book, Kirsch talks about the sorts of events and social conditions that lead to depression and need to be addressed as a public health matter, but this idea is only sketched out. Next up on this theme:

    Is there nothing so ridiculous the US public won't eat it up?

    Guess not.

    Wednesday, March 16, 2011

    Memoirs, narratives, and change

    I like memoirs, though I read them relatively infrequently.* William Zinsser has a recent post, “The Right to Write,” defending memoir writing for everyone. In it, he notes the benefits of writing to others and, importantly, to ourselves: “Writing is also a potent search mechanism, often as helpful as psychoanalysis and a lot cheaper.”

    Coincidentally, when I read his piece I had just come across this post about narrative therapy. I have to say that, though it could have its dangers, there’s something very appealing to me about writing and creating our narratives as individual therapy and in creating social change. I see from my quick HYDRA search that Greta Christina touched on the importance of narratives a while back, with someone referring to narrative therapy in the comments. It appears from my limited investigation that the term “narrative therapy” is associated with a particular set of people and school of thought, whose specific techniques and claims I don’t know enough about to defend or criticize, so I should probably refer to “narrative psychology” or “narrative medicine.” But the general notion is intriguing, and it’s no surprise that it seems to resonate with – and perhaps prove most useful to - writers and those interested in history, democratic practice, and social change.

    * The only two that come to mind from recent years are this

    and this

    Next on my list,

    Monday, March 14, 2011

    HYDRA - launch and request for suggestions

    I’ve become increasingly annoyed with the fact that my searches don’t turn up the news and information I’m interested in, so I’ve begun my own leftwing search engine, HYDRA, which can be used by anyone. (Heartfelt thanks to strange gods for the help.)

    It’s just to the left, and you can give it a try. So far, it includes only slightly more than 100 sites, but I hope to expand it greatly. Please suggest sites – news, organizations, blogs (including your own) – that you’d like to see included. I plan to update it regularly, and I don’t think there’s a limit. I’ll include any sites in any area, geographical (including local) or topical, as long as they offer a smart, skeptical, and (preferably as-far-as-possible-)leftwing perspective and don’t irritate me.

    I hope people find it useful.

    Sunday, March 13, 2011

    Interlude - Ship out on the Sea

    * h/t Sven, for introducing me to this (unfortunately now defunct) band

    Saturday, March 12, 2011

    Two photos that aren't b&w (really)

    Something I love about the light here is that it's often the opposite of "colorful." Things aren't washed out; they're and graphic. OK, these that I took several months ago and just found might be a bit extreme - I've been asked more than once if some of my color photos are b&w, which could signal a problem....

    (Delayed) Justice for Kidnappings in Argentina and Spain

    In other legal news, after many years, Jorge Videla and Reynaldo Bignone (already in prison for life) and six other officials in the Argentine military junta have come to trial for the kidnapping of hundreds of babies from people who were persecuted – jailed, tortured, murdered – by the regime during Argentina’s “Dirty War.”
    While the children were adopted by families friendly to the military leadership, their parents were rarely heard from again.

    Female political prisoners were kept alive during their pregnancies, only to be summarily killed after giving birth, often dropped alive and naked into the sea from military aircraft.
    The trial will involve hundreds of witnesses and last several months.

    In Spain, meanwhile, the pressure continues to build for a full national investigation of the baby-stealing ring that began after the Civil War, when children of opponents of the dictatorship were kidnapped and adopted. (This was the subject of the book/film The Lost Children of Franco several years ago.)
    Military psychologist Antonio Vallejo-Nagera built the ideological framework for the practice of taking children from their parents. He saw Marxism as a form of mental illness that was polluting the Hispanic race and advocated that children of leftists be removed and re-educated, a process he termed "separating the wheat from the chaff."

    An unknown number of infants were taken from women's prisons. In addition, some Republican child evacuees were repatriated without their parents' consent and interned in Social Aid homes for schooling in religious and nationalist ideology. Many were adopted by right-wing families.
    In the Spanish case, the involvement of priests and nuns seems clear; I don’t know if this was also the case in Argentina, though there is of course evidence of Church complicity more generally.*

    Speaking of justice and the recovery of historical memory, I’m looking forward to seeing Patricio Guzmán’s new film, Nostalgia for the Light:

    It’s showing in New York for the next couple of weeks, and he’s making appearances there. (He’s made some pro-Church films in the past, but the ones I’ve seen haven’t been. Hope this one isn’t all goddy.) ...By the way, why are these documentaries so expensive? Why don’t they put them on iTunes and elsewhere online and go for quantity? That way they could get their message out to more people far more quickly….

    *Note - of Christian von Wernich:
    On 9 October 2007 the court found him guilty of complicity in seven homicides, 42 kidnappings, and 32 instances of torture, and sentenced him to life imprisonment.

    As of 1 February 2010 von Wernich has not been penalised by the Catholic Church and is permitted to officiate as priest at Mass in prison. On his conviction his superior, bishop Martín Elizalde, apologised for von Wernich being "so far from the requirements of the mission commended to him" and said "at the appropriate time von Wernich's situation will have to be resolved in accordance with canonical law", but never again referred to the issue in public.
    Well, knock me over with a rusty thurible. I’m shocked.

    Fighting Catch Shares

    This is one of those weeks when I suspect I’ll anger a diverse set of people.

    So. On to it!

    It appears oral arguments in the suit challenging Amendment 16 begin on Tuesday in US District Court in Boston. For some background, see here, here, and here. For a highly critical perspective on catch shares and related regulatory schemes, see here (if you want the NOAA/NMFS/BINGO/Pew spin, you can find that pretty much anywhere).