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Leaving Las Vegas … Rich

Report from the Front Lines at TAM and Freedom Fest

By “rich” I mean intellectually, of course, because as all skeptics know, the laws of probability are precisely employed by all Las Vegas casinos to insure that if you play long enough the money in your pocket will end up in their coffers. It is not for nothing that it is called Lost Wages.

Actually, there are two ways to win at gambling. You can do it the way I did after the final session at TAM Sunday: play for a brief period of time and quit when you are ahead. I started with $200 at a $5 minimum Blackjack table. For around 20 minutes I bounced around between $150 and $250 in chips artfully stacked in front of me as I pretended to be a big spender. The inevitable losing streak then kicked in and I was suddenly down below $50, then clawed my way back up to $228 when it was time to go, saving myself from the over-confidence bias that would have, in time, left me with nothing but green cloth beneath my empty palms. (The other way to win at gambling in Las Vegas? Be the owner of a casino.)

Wednesday afternoon the Skeptics Society photographer Dave Patton and I made the drive to Vegas after our annual bike ride to Mt. Wilson and subsequent Subway sandwich stop to assuage the guilt to come from eating and drinking too much in Sin City. Wednesday night I dined with Mark Skousen and guests at the world-famous Circo restaurant at Bellagio’s, a joint so pricey that the prices are not even printed on the menu. I got to sit next to John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, who just completed his book entitled Conscious Capitalism (due out 12-12-12), in which he wants to rewrite the economic narrative of conservatives who have too long embraced the “greed is good” and “the virtue of selfishness” messages of conservatives and libertarians such as Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand. As he told me (I’m paraphrasing from memory, slightly cloudy from imbibing some very fine red wine), “Entrepreneurs, inventors, and creators don’t go into business just to make money. They go into business because they want to change the world, follow their passions, create something new. The money is nice but it isn’t the most important thing.” Conscious capitalism puts people and community and jobs and quality products and service first, money second. Mackey believes what he preaches, carefully selecting from the Circo menu a vegetarian dinner with only the healthiest ingredients, and he tries to do that in his grocery stores. Yes, eating super healthy can cost more, and in some cases some skepticism is appropriate as to whether or not those more expensive foods really make you healthier or not. (I went Vegan once—it started just after breakfast one day and ended at dinner that night.)

John Mackey is an interesting contrast with Steve Jobs, a comparison I made at a Friday panel discussion at Freedom Fest on the late Apple CEO. I noted my concern that the popularity of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs is an example of a selection bias in publishing: no one writes biographies of all the failed Silicon valley entrepreneurs of the 70s, 80s, and 90s. People scour through the personalities and developmental histories of successful entrepreneurs and CEOs in search of the (pick your number) X habits of highly effective leaders (and such). It’s all malarkey. Yes, optimism can be a good trait to have in order to overcome the normal obstacles that one encounters in building an organization or company, but pessimism might make one more realistic when it comes to risk taking, changing directions before it is too late instead of stubbornly pressing on when there is no hope of success. Yes, perhaps being tough minded makes for strong leaders who get more out of their employees by intimidating them or staring at them without blinking (Jobs’s tactic), but tender-minded leaders can also motivate employees through empathy and caring about their welfare. Open-mindedness is good because you are more likely to see the value of new ideas, but if you are too open-minded your brains might fall out and you’ll believe every wacky (and wrong) idea that comes your way. And so forth. You get the idea. There are lots of ways to be successful. Steve Jobs and John Mackey have (near as I can tell) radically different personalities, and yet both were and are successful entrepreneurs and CEOs.

I also sat on a panel with Charles Murray about his new book, Coming Apart, about the state of white America from 1960 to 2010. Murray argues that a cognitive elite has arisen as a result of the fact that our economy is now so dependent on science, technology, and information that requires cognitive skills learned in college and graduate school, and these needed skills under employment have led to a distinct two-culture system of those who live in Fishtown (blue collar) and Belmont (white collar). It’s a good book chockablock full of sociological data, so I focused my attention on his claim that the decline of religiosity and increase in secularism has contributed to the culture divide and the loss of values (so he claims). I disputed that premise that America is losing its religion, given that the polls consistently show that 90% to 95% of Americans believe in God, although I did acknowledge the fact that the fastest growing religious group in America is the “nones”—those who tick the box for “none” when asked by pollsters for their religion.

Murray holds that America’s Founding Fathers, while not especially super religious themselves, believed that religion was necessary for self-governance. That is, if moral controls are not imposed from above by government then they must be imposed from within through religion. Murray believes that the rise of secularism has led to a decline in morals. I asked him what he believes. He said, “I’m a reluctant agnostic who wishes he could believe.” I cited Gregory Pauls’ 2005 study published in the Journal of Religion and Society—“Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies”—that found an inverse correlation between religiosity (measured by belief in God, biblical literalism, and frequency of prayer and service attendance) and societal health (measured by rates of homicide, suicide, childhood mortality, life expectancy, sexually transmitted diseases, abortion, and teen pregnancy) in 18 developed democracies. “In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion in the prosperous democracies,” Paul found. “The United States is almost always the most dysfunctional of the developed democracies, sometimes spectacularly so.” Indeed, the U.S. scores the highest in religiosity and the highest (by far) in homicides, STDs, abortions, and teen pregnancies.

In fact, I sent this study to Murray before Freedom Fest so that he would have time to think about it and provide a thoughtful answer, rather than my trying to ambush him or trip him up. I made the point that I do not believe that religion causes these societal ills, and that in fact I am quite certain that each of them has a different set of causes. Sure homicides have one set of causes different from that of STDs, and the like. But, I noted, if religion is suppose to be such a powerful prophylactic against sin and other societal problems, why is it not working very well here in America, the most religious of all the Western democracies. As well, I pointed out, South American countries are 99% Catholic. All those South Americans accept Jesus as their savior, and yet crime rates are high, poverty is high, etc. By contrast, I concluded, Northern European countries such as Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Germany, etc. have some of the lowest rates of religiosity in the Western world and yet they have exceptionally low rates of homicide, abortion, teen pregnancy, STDs, etc.

Murray’s response surprised me: “Michael, to resolve these issues would best be done over a late night drink and long conversation. But in general my sense about your writings on religion is that you are unnecessarily harsh and unsophisticated and non-subtle in your analysis.” He then explained that even though he’s not a believer his wife is a deeply believing Quaker who takes her religion very seriously, and this impresses him and makes him respect religion.

Interestingly, Charles Darwin felt the same way. He called himself an agnostic (in the sense that his friend Thomas Huxley meant it when he defined the word in 1869 to mean “unknowable”) and noted: “In my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an Atheist in the sense of denying the existence of God. I think that generally (and more and more as I grow older), but not always, that an Agnostic would be the more correct description of my state of mind.” But his wife Emma was a deeply religious woman who bemoaned the fact that if her husband did not believe then they would not spend eternity together. Thus, Darwin avoided the subject when he could. For example, in 1880, Darwin clarified his reasoning to the British socialist Edward Aveling, who solicited Darwin’s endorsement of a group of radical atheists by asking his permission to dedicate a book Aveling edited entitled The Student’s Darwin, a collection of articles discussing the implications of evolutionary theory for religious thought. The book had a militant antireligious flavor that Darwin disdained and he declined the offer, elaborating his reason with his usual flare for quotable maxims: “It appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly) that direct arguments against christianity & theism produce hardly any effect on the public; & freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men’s minds which follow[s] from the advance of science. It has, therefore, been always my object to avoid writing on religion, & I have confined myself to science.” He then appended an additional hint about a personal motive: “I may, however, have been unduly biased by the pain which it would give some members of my family, if I aided in any way direct attacks on religion.” My sense is that Charles Murray is taking a page from the playbook of Charles Darwin in the interests of domestic tranquility and out of love and respect, admirable qualities both.

Nevertheless, I would have liked to get an answer to my question about why the über-religious America has so many societal ills, why über-Catholic South American countries are so socially ill, and why the practically non-religious northern European countries are so socially healthy. Inquiring minds want to know.

I’ll post more later on TAM and Freedom Fest, including an analysis of one of the most magnificent take-downs of a pseudoscientist I’ve ever seen when I arranged to have skeptic Steve Novella debate an anti-vaxxer at Freedom Fest. I’ll also summarize my own debate at Freedom Fest with a Catholic Thomist philosopher on the question: “Is Man a Machine, Animal, or Special Creation?” I think I did about as well as Novella did against the anti-vaxxer, but libertarians are a mixed bag when it comes to religion, with some super skeptical of Big Government but have not an ounce of skepticism when it comes to Big Religion. Likewise when it comes to corporations, which they adore, unless it is Big Pharma in cahoots with Big Government conspiring to make us all sick in the name of Big Profits. (Bill Maher, an anti-vaxxer himself, is the liberal doppelgänger of these libertarians, loving Big Government unless they are in cahoots with Big Pharma, in which case they’re all evil.) Stay tuned…

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Burning Man

Can burn patients really be healed from a distance by phone?

A couple of weeks ago I was at a meeting with television producers at a Pasadena, California hotel when I ran into a man named Richard Greene whom I had met last year at the debate that Leonard Mlodinow and I did with Deepak Chopra and others at Chapman University. With him was a woman named Dr. Marja Pronk, whom Greene introduced as someone who can heal burn patients from a distance by phone, and that she learned this skill under the tutelage of one Dr. Philippe Sauvage. Greene was interested in having me test Dr. Pronk while she was in town, but we ran out of time and the protocols and ethical considerations of intentionally burning either people or animals were prohibitive (in my view) and so at present we are still working on how this claim might be tested under controlled conditions. If you have any suggestions on how we might do this while also meeting the ethical requirements of an Institutional Review Board or Ethical Review Board that overseas the ethical treatment of human and animal subjects in experiments, please let me know.

First, I will provide you the background I was provided followed by my own thoughts on what it would take to test such a claim, along with my thoughts in between on Philippe Sauvage, which as you shall see is making extraordinary claims that go far beyond healing burn patients.

Richard Greene sent me this background material:

photo of burn patient

As we discussed, the claims made by Breton “healer” Dr. Philippe Sauvage and his co-workers, including medical Dr. Marja Pronk (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sshO4IrvJzI and www.sosburn.info) are astounding and challenge almost every belief we have in Western science. To date there have been approximately 500 who have benefited from this technology in 29 countries (including 46 states in the US). Here, for example, is a video of 22 year old Chris Fleming from Ontario, CA. and some press clippings from Africa:

Newspaper Tanzania
Newspaper Ghana

The protocol is, as we discussed, for those who receive 1st, 2nd, 3rd or 4th degree burns to simply call the designated free healing hotline within 30 minutes of the burn. As you will see in the videos, the claim, remarkably, is that 100% of those who do this have their pain removed and ALL skin damage reversed within hours or a few days at most. Here is the most dramatic example—a Ghanan girl that Dr. Marja Pronk treated using Dr. Sauvage’s method. Her burns, as you can see, were 3rd and 4th degree and she was expected to die…

Because her father made contact with Dr. Pronk’s team, this beautiful young girl made a full recovery. Here are the after photos. There were no grafts or other surgical procedures performed.

photo of burn patientphoto of burn patient

photo of burn patient

Mr. Greene did qualify his own observations:

I do not have direct experience of these examples or claims. What I do know is that Dr. Sauvage is one of the most intelligent, genuine and unique men I have ever met and that he looks at the world in a very different way. Based on my time with him and Dr. Pronk and Alison McDermott, the highly articulate nurse who coordinates the efforts here in the US, I (even the lawyer side of me) am highly inclined to believe that his healings are real and represent the most repeatable, verifiable and significant scientific breakthroughs in centuries, if not all history.

Thank you for keeping an open mind.

I found Mr. Greene to be a very intelligent and thoughtful man who genuinely believes that Sauvage can do what he claims. However, a little background search on Sauvage turned up some disturbing aspects to the man. For example, I noted that this doesn’t look too good.

I asked Mr. Greene if he believes these things that Sauvage claims about himself:

At the end of “Druidism,” there would be born a single male child [to] the only surviving matriarchal lineage of ancient Armorican spirituality. Androgynous, with the sacred powers of both female and male combined for the only time in Druidic history, this male child would be called the last Strobineller, the paradigmatic shiftmaster, assigned with the task of reconciling Man and Nature before humankind destroyed, forever, planet Earth, or vice versa. Born on December 30, 1953 in the Celtic nation now called Brittany, Philip Savage was this male child.

This, I noted, is the classic messiah complex, single male child of matriarchal lineage, healing the sick…come here to save mankind…he’s the new Jesus and Marja Pronk is his Mary Magdalene.

I asked Mr. Greene what he thought of all this, and he responded thoughtfully:

1) Dr. Pronk is 100% solid with impeccable integrity and the testimonials—as a professional in non-verbal communication and body language who gets as much as $25,000 per day to teach businesses same—are overwhelmingly solid and believable in my professional opinion.

2) I have spent about 30 hours—1 on 1—with Phillip and have experienced a level of knowledge, perspective and answers to questions that I have never experienced before. He is not normal and is, indeed, exceptional in every way—even in his eccentricities. How many con men do you know that speak 17 languages, play at least as many instruments and have 3 advanced degrees.

3) I have never seen anything to indicate that the medical cases are not 100% real.

4) I have never seen anything to indicate that the burn cases are not 100% real. As we discussed, Michael, he could be an alien, the worst human around or even a figment of one’s imagination…but if this shit works, it is a phenomenal story and one of the greatest medical breakthroughs in human history.

All of the above is irrelevant, though, Michael, as you know better than anyone. Let’s do the testing.

Fair enough. The proof is in the pudding. But I did write to Richard the following concerns that I have about Sauvage (sometimes rendered online as Savage):

I appreciate your frankness. I must tell you that the more I read about Philip Savage the louder my baloney detection alarm sounds. I’m sure you must understand why. Even in LaLa land here in So. California, with egos bigger than Mt. Everest and loonies claiming every nutty thing under the sun, Savage towers above them all in both audacity and unbelievability. My experience after three decades of investigating such claims is no one to date who has ever made such claims has turned out to be the real thing. Not one. Not even close. They are either delusional or psychopathic con artists. So…the chances of Savage being able to do what he claims, in my view, is extremely low, very improbable.

Still, as you say, the proof is in the pudding, so let’s put him to the test: not by advertising a phone number and hope people call with a burn accident; but by a controlled test in a laboratory under conditions that he (or Marja) could attempt to alter cells or heal them or whatever—some objective measurable effect that can be documented and recorded. The problem with subjective pain readings (on a 1-10 scale, for example), is that all sorts of things can effect it, including acupuncture, acupressure, meditation, just thinking about the pain scale, etc.

Please ask Marja if she can do something along the lines of altering cells or healing burns or injuries in a controlled setting such as a lab. I do not want to participate in a program that involves giving out a phone number because gullible people may naively start calling it in the belief that their cancer, AIDS, etc. will be cured, giving them false hopes, possibly draining their bank accounts (if such a thing is going on), etc. That would make me party to a scam and so I can’t take that risk. And in any case, as I said, that’s not an ideal test. We need controlled conditions in a lab or a hospital. I don’t see why, if burn pain is a product of the brain and thought, that Marja can’t go to the UCLA medical center and find someone who is in agony, and just heal them right there, reduce their pain level through her and Savage’s method. If you want a dramatic demonstration that could be filmed, that would certainly do it!

In a follow-up email I added:

More to the point, we need to establish some sort of definitive test in which we can clearly see results (or not). Remember, medical conditions are rarely stable—they are constantly changing, so we need to have in place a way to tell if the change is due to natural processes of the body healing itself, interventions by traditional medical treatments, or through Savage’s method. Anecdotes won’t help us. “I felt better after Dr. Pronk treated me” doesn’t mean anything. Maybe that patient feels better after a good night’s sleep, or after the doctor visits, or after taking his meds, etc. Most important is that we are very clear about what exactly is being claimed so that we can test that. Big generic things like “feeling better” or “getting better” won’t cut it in science. Specifics, such as burned skin healing 50% faster with the Pronk treatment versus the traditional medical treatment would be an example because then we’d have a time frame that can be quantified.

Then, out of the blue, I received an email from another Sauvage acolyte named Alison McDermott:

Through researching you, there seems to be pervading humanitarian integrity, a steadfast scientific mind who loves the simple truth of the matter, as well as a remarkably in common, “list of Loathsomes” with Dr Savage and myself. Religions, “New Age bozos” to coin his phrase, (these two top of the list), so-called “psychics”, “mystics”, most definitely “healers”, prophets, “goddesses”, fakirs, so-called “alternative practitioner’s” and all the other self-deluded of which you can find just about everywhere, busy claiming to do what they cannot do…. If I may presume some understanding of your “gurus”? Facts, solid proof, science and the scientific methodology. Also know as “The experiment”, and the findings thereof. (None of which you have ever found demonstrable by the list above throughout your 30 year investigative career, if I am correct?)

The “salt” of any good skeptic you’ll probably agree would be, “We want to see the diligent establishment of these “facts, results and proofs”, else expect, (quite rightly) to be “thrown to the lions”?? The skeptic with integrity that is, not the “dime a dozen”, wanna-be de-bunkers of subjective “mere opinions”, educated or otherwise, “ruin them without testing them”—“witch-hunt” tacticians (“paid for slander” as deployed by the BBC) etc etc, amateurs which are as “virally prolific” as are those on the list of deceivers above your mission is to “expose”.

Dr Savage can do what he claims…and can prove it to you.

There has long existed the perfect logistic to execute this “experiment” meeting all scientific standards required, not shared with you in any contact with Dr Marja Pronk and Richard Greene. Simply put, it is this:

This “right person” is PERSONALLY (friends) connected to a TV News Network DECISION MAKER, (CNN, FOX NEWS, APTV have journalists in every major city) who, with a simple phone call, can quietly and privately mobilise a posse of his journalists on location ALREADY, eg in major cities or war zones etc, to send in burn cases, and film the results. (they are called to fires, explosions, bombings all the time…their “runners” are on the scene in minutes.) Proofs start coming in…where upon, the “decision maker” now KNOWS it’s true!!! Then, he has ALL his worldwide journalists alerted to send in burns…and the start pouring in thick and fast, 100’s or more per day…

The “carrot” for this network decision maker is that they get to “break” the news AND the exclusive interview rights with the man behind the results…(ratings ratings ratings!!)

Would you agree that observable, repeatable and recordable results, documentable over and over by independent scientist’s/doctors around the world, nothing whatsoever to do with YOU or US, each other or any party involved, (except as an emergency admission burn victim to their ER) is as scientific and objective as it gets?

I am permitted to officially “throw down the gauntlet” directly on behalf of Dr Savage himself for you to…”Expose the famous Breton healer” scientifically, once and for all.

I responded:

Hi Alison, thanks for the thoughtful note.

There’s no gauntlet to throw down or anything like that. We’re just trying to figure out a way to test Dr. Savage’s and Dr. Pronk’s claims of being able to heal burn patients. The problem with what you suggest about getting journalists to call the number in the event of an accident or fire that results in burned people is that this would not be a controlled experiment. People vary greatly in their ability to heal from various disorders and there are dozens of reasons why. The hard part about doing science is isolating the variable that actually matters from the variables that do not, and then controlling all the variables for the placebo effect as well. Take age, for example. Older people heal much slower than younger people, from most diseases and accidents, so you have to control for age. That is, take age into account in a statistical analysis of group differences in whatever you are measuring. Socioeconomic status also matters, since poor people typically have poorer diets, exercise less, smoke and drink more, engage in riskier sex and do drugs more, have poorer health care, see doctors and dentists less often, and so on, and all these things also influence health and healing, so these too must be controlled for. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Anecdotes about this or that person who got healed by Dr. Savage (or any one of hundreds of other alternative medical treatments available on the Internet and other alternative sources outside mainstream medicine) are completely meaningless from a scientific perspective because of the problem I’ve described above.

What needs to be done to properly test Dr. Savage and Dr. Pronk would be to, say, have a sample size of 75 people, all of whom are burned in precisely the same manner, with the same technique (e.g., cigarette burn), at the same temperature, in the same place on the body, etc., then treat 25 of them with Dr. Savage’s technique, 25 with standard medical treatment, and 25 get no treatment whatsoever. Then see if there are any measurable differences between the three groups. Studies such as this, which typically involve much larger sample sizes (usually in the hundreds or thousands) take many months—sometimes years—to complete. It can’t be done in one setting. That’s the only way to know if something works or not.

So, although I can certainly sense in your passion that you believe Dr. Savage can heal burn patients, there’s really only one way to know for sure and that is to conduct a test such as what I’ve outlined above (although there are others I could propose as well). But for both legal and ethical reasons that I’ve communicated to Richard Greene, it is very unlikely we could ever get permission to conduct any such test on humans, and even animals might be difficult to get approval for such a burn test that would inflict harm and damage. I don’t personally feel comfortable burning rats or any other animal for such a test. I’m not a member of PETA, and I don’t in principle object to animal testing, but I personally wouldn’t do it myself and I would prefer that medical research make more efforts to avoid it where possible using, say, computer models for testing.

What would be helpful to me is if someone can tell me exactly what it is that Dr. Savage and Dr. Pronk can do. We need very specific definitions of what constitutes a “healing” and over what time frame. Wounds naturally heal anyway. Let’s say a cigarette burn normally heals in 10 days. What is it that Dr. Savage and Dr. Pronk can do? Can they heal it in 9 days? 8? 1? Five minutes? And what does this healing look like? Does the skin just magically grow over the wound such that you can’t even see any scarring? And over what time frame? Again, the problem is that people vary a lot in such conditions. For example, one person perhaps heals from a cigarette burn in 6 days, someone else in 15 days, with a general population average of 10 days. So what if the person Dr. Savage happened to heal was one of those who heals in 6 days, and he then claims to have done the healing in 6 days when in fact he did not. Does that make sense? You see the problem here, right?

Finally, although, again, I can sense in the passion of your words that you believe the claims of Dr. Savage, please be aware that there are thousands of people just like him all over the world making equally bold claims about healing cancer, AIDS, paralysis, weight loss, depression, and the like. Not one has ever been able to prove their claims under controlled conditions such as those I’ve outlined above. Not one. Ever. So what’s more likely? That Dr. Savage is the first person in history to actually be the real deal, or that he’s just like the thousands of others making such claims? For those who know him, such as yourself, the answer is likely to be “yes, he’s the one, the only one, ever, and how fortunate that we get to live at the same time as him and know him.” But to the rest of us on the outside who don’t know him, his claims are indistinguishable from the thousands of others just like him making similarly extraordinary claims.

If anyone reading this blog has an idea of how we can test Dr. Pronk and Dr. Savage in some controlled manner beyond what I’ve described herewith and that would not violate ethical standards outlined by ethics committees that regulate the ethical treatment of experimental subjects I would be appreciative of your thoughts on the matter.

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Folk-Wisdom Medicine versus Science-Based Medicine

This article first appeared as an alternative medicine opinion editorial for the American Medical Associations’s Virtual Mentor Journal, Volume 13, Number 6: 389–393, June 2011.

For many years now there has been considerable debate between so-called complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) and mainstream science-based medicine. In reality there is no debate because there is only science-based medicine and everything else that has yet to be tested. Most of CAM falls into this latter category. This does not automatically mean that all CAM claims are false; only that most of them have yet to be tested through the rigorous methods of science, which begins with the null hypothesis that holds that the hypothesis under investigation is not true (null) until proven otherwise. A null hypothesis states that X does not cause Y. If you think X does cause Y then the burden of proof is on you to provide convincing experimental data to reject the null hypothesis.

The statistical standards of proof needed to reject the null hypothesis are substantial. Ideally, in a controlled experiment, we would like to be at least 95–99 percent confident that the results were not due to chance before we offer our provisional assent that the effect may be real. Everyone is familiar with the process already through news stories about the FDA approving a new drug after extensive clinical trials. The trials to which they refer involve sophisticated methods to test the claim that Drug X (say a statin drug) improves outcomes in Disease Y (say cholesterol-related atherosclerosis). The null hypothesis states that statins do not lower cholesterol and thus have no effect on atherosclerosis. Rejecting the null hypothesis means that there was a statistically significant difference between the experimental group receiving the statins and the control group that did not.

In most cases CAM hypotheses do not pass these simple criteria. They have either failed to reject the null hypothesis, or they haven’t even been rigorously tested to know whether or not they could reject the null hypothesis.

What, then, is the pull of CAM for so many people? According to a 2002 survey of U.S. adults conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics and the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine: 74.6% had used some form of complementary and alternative medicine, 14.8% “sought care from a licensed or certified” practitioner, suggesting that “most individuals who use CAM self-prescribe and/or self- medicate,”1 and that the most common CAM therapies used were prayer (45.2%), herbalism (18.9%), breathing methods (11.6%), meditation (7.6%), chiropractic (7.5%), yoga (5.1%), body work (5.0%), diet-based therapy (3.5%), progressive relaxation (3.0%), mega-vitamin therapy (2.8%), and visualization (2.1%).2

A 2004 survey of 1,400 U.S. hospitals found that over 25% offered such alternative and complementary therapies as acupuncture, homeopathy, and massage therapy. According to researchers Sita Ananth of Health Forum, an affiliate of the American Hospital Association, and William Martin, PsyD, of the College of Commerce at DePaul University in Chicago, in a news release: “More and more, patients are requesting care beyond what most consider to be traditional health services. And hospitals are responding to the needs of the communities they serve by offering these therapies.”3

Herein lies one answer to understanding why CAM sells. There is a market demand for it. Why? One possibility is that people are turning to alternative medicine because their needs are not being met by traditional medicine. As the late medical historian Roy Porter was fond of pointing out, before the 20th century this certainly was the case.4 Medical historians, in fact, are in agreement that until well into the 20th century it was safer not to go to a doctor, thus leading to the success of such nonsense as homeopathy—a totally worthless nostrum that did no harm, thus allowing the body to heal itself. Since humans are pattern-seeking animals we credit as the vector of healing whatever it was we did just before getting well. This is also known as superstition, or magical thinking.

Another explanation may be found in examining what CAMers are offering that mainstream physicians are not: TLC. By this I do not just mean a hand squeeze or a hug, but an open and honest relationship with patients and their families that provides a realistic assessment of the medical condition and prospects. People are going alternative because in too many instances physicians have become highly skilled technicians—cogs in the cold machinery and massive bureaucracy of modern HMO medicine.

I witnessed the effect directly over the course of a decade during my mother’s recurring and malignant meningioma brain tumors. She finally succumbed, but in the process I gained a deeper understanding of why people turn to alternative medicine. Don’t get me wrong—my mother’s doctors were brilliant, her care the very best available, and we have no regrets about what might have been. And that’s the point. Even under such ideal conditions I found the whole experience frustrating and unfulfilling: it was nearly impossible to get honest and accurate information about my mom’s condition; neither my father nor I could get doctors to return our calls; misinformation and (usually) no information was the norm; and despite my best efforts, the relationship with her physicians (with one exception—her oncologist whom I befriended), could not have been more detached.

I found it rather telling, for example, that when I identified myself as “Dr. Shermer” I got faster results at the hospital than when I was merely “Mr. Shermer” (a lie of omission, not commission, since I do have a Ph.D.), but I still found it difficult to get calls returned. Even worse, when my mom’s oncologist (one of the country’s best-known and well-respected in his field) called her surgeons, he too heard too many dial tones. If physicians show such a remarkable lack of professional courtesy with their own colleagues, what are the rest of us to expect?

More than anything patients want information. They want to know what is really going on. They don’t want jargon. They don’t want false hope or unnecessary pessimism. Studies show that patients do better when they know in detail all the steps they will have to take in their recovery process—probably because it allows them to anticipate, plan, and pace themselves. Knowledge is power, and physicians are modern-day shamans. Patients want the power that knowledge brings, and that empowerment cannot be given in the 8.5 minutes the average doctor spends per patient per visit. Patients want a relationship with their primary caretaker that allows them to ask the important questions and expect honest answers.

Physicians tend to have monologues when they should be having dialogues. The reasoning process of diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment goes on inside their heads, and what comes out is a glossed telegram of truncated lingo. The physician-patient connection is a one-way street, an authority-flunky relationship top heavy in arrogance and off-putting to anyone with a modicum of self-esteem and social awareness. If I could reduce all this into a single request, it is this: Talk to patients as if they are thoughtful, intelligent people capable of understanding and deeply curious about their condition.

So…we should turn to CAM then, right? Wrong. An even deeper problem is that CAMers lack much medical knowledge and (especially) scientific reasoning, making them dangerous. The 2002 study referenced above found that 54.9% used CAM in conjunction with conventional medicine but did not always tell their primary care physician, thus leading to possibly deadly mixtures of drugs and herbs.1 It is not a matter of everything to gain and nothing to lose by going CAM (even if your doc offers no hope), because quack medicines cost money, cause harm, and, most importantly, take away valuable time that could and should be spent with loved ones in this already too-short of a stay we have with each other.

Besides TLC, the cognitive pull of CAM is anecdotal thinking. Since humans are pattern-seeking animals, we credit whatever we did just before getting well as the vector of healing. If A appears to be connected to B, we assume that it is unless proven otherwise. This is the very antithesis of the science-based system of the null hypothesis. The recent medical controversy over whether vaccinations cause autism reveals the power of anecdotal thinking. On the one side are scientists who have been unable to find any causal link between the symptoms of autism and the vaccine preservative thimerosal, which breaks down into ethylmercury, the culprit du jour for autism’s cause. On the other side are parents who noticed that shortly after having their children vaccinated autistic symptoms began to appear. These anecdotal associations are so powerful that it causes people to ignore contrary evidence: ethylmercury is expelled from the body quickly (unlike its chemical cousin methylmercury) and therefore cannot accumulate in the brain long enough to cause damage, and rates of autism diagnoses did not decline in children born after thimerosal was removed from vaccines.

The anecdotal thinking upon which CAMers rely—even if unconsciously and with the best of intentions—can be particularly dangerous in the hands of those whose intentions are less than ethical. Thus it is that any medical huckster promising that A will cure B has only to advertise a handful of successful anecdotes in the form of testimonials, and the human brain will do the rest. By way of example from the annals of medical quackery, witness the case of John R. Brinkley, one of the greatest medical quacks of the first half of the twentieth century, and his nemesis Morris Fishbein, the quackbusting editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association. Their decades-long struggle that criss-crossed the American heartland throughout the 1920s and 1930s, represents this tension between folk and scientific medicine, well summarized in Pope Brock’s 2008 book Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam.5

What Brinkley was selling was what all men want—sexual vitality—and he developed a surgical technique that offered the type of firm results that his male clientele so desperately sought: goat testis sewn right into the patient’s scrotum, which he likened to “embedding a marble in an apple.” Come one, come all. And they did, to the tune of $750 per surgery, advertised widely in newspapers (an AMA study revealed that over half of all newspaper advertising at the time was for patent medicines) and the new fangled technology—radio—which Brinkley took to like an evangelist to television. The ads featured testimonials from happy men who proclaimed their restored manhood, and these anecdotes made Brinkley a rich man as it drove customers to his practice. But as his business grew he got careless, performing operations both before and after happy hour, and fobbing off work to assistants whose medical credentials were even shadier than his own (Brinkley graduated from the unaccredited and improbably named Eclectic Medical University of Kansas City). The result was dozens of dead patients.5

This got the attention of the ambitious Morris Fishbein, whose career coincided with the rise of the AMA’s attempt to rein in flimflammery through accrediting medical colleges and licensing practitioners. Fishbein made his public mark in 1923 when the Chicago Daily News sent him to investigate the “Hot Girl of Escanaba” (Michigan), a woman who suffered from a temperature of 115 degrees for two weeks. Fishbein exposed her as a “hysterical malingerer” when he discovered that a flesh colored hot water bottle was employed to elevate rectal thermometer readings. For the next two decades Fishbein pursued the country’s “most daring and dangerous” swindler, as he called Brinkley, until he finally brought him down in a decisive courtroom confrontation.5

Fishbein’s promotion of science-based medicine was heroic in his day, but medical flapdoodle flourishes today on the Internet so every medical association and journal needs a quackbusting Fishbein on its staff, for without such eternal vigilance folk medicine will trump scientific medicine in the minds of patients. And thus it is that skepticism should be our default rule of thumb when it comes to CAM claims.

References

  1. Barnes PM, Powell-Griner E, McFann K, Nahin RL. “Complementary and alternative medicine use among adults: United States, 2002.” Adv Data. 2004;(343):6. http://nccam.nih.gov/news/camstats/2002/report.pdf. Accessed May 17, 2011.
  2. Barnes, Powell-Griner, McFann, Nahin, 12.
  3. Ananth S. Health Forum 2005 Complementary and Alternative Medicine Survey of Hospitals [news release]. Chicago, IL: American Hospital Association; July 19, 2006. And: www.cbsnews.com/stories/2006/07/20/health/webmd/main1823747.shtml
  4. Porter R. The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity. New York: W.W. Norton; 1999.
  5. Brock P. Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam. New York: Crown Books; 2008.
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The Immortalist

A Review of Transcendent Man: A Film About the Life and Ideas of Ray Kurzweil. Produced by Barry Ptolemy, Music by Philip Glass, inspired by the book The Singularity is Near by Ray Kurzweil. Digital release March 1, DVD release May 25.

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Beware the prophet who proclaims the end of the world, the apocalypse, doomsday, judgment day, the second coming, the resurrection, or the Biggest Thing to Happen to Humanity ever will happen in the prophet’s own lifetime. It is our natural inclination to assume that we are special and that our generation will witness the new dawn, but the Copernican Principle tells us that we are not special. Thus, the chances that even a science-based prophecy such as that proffered by the futurist, inventor, and scientistic visionary extraordinaire Ray Kurzweil—that by 2029 we will have the science and technology to live forever—is unlikely to be fulfilled.

Transcendent Man is Barry Ptolemy’s beautifully crafted and artfully edited documentary film about Kurzweil and his quest to save humanity. If you enjoy contemplating the Big Questions in Life from a scientific perspective, you will love this film. Accompanied by the eerily haunting music of Philip Glass who, appropriately enough, also scored Errol Morris’ film The Fog of War—about another bigger-than-life character who thought he could mold the world through data-driven decisions, Robert McNamara—Transcendent Man pulls viewers in through Kurzweil’s visage of a future in which we merge with our machines and vastly extend our longevity and intelligence to the point where even death will be defeated. This point is what Kurzweil calls the “singularity” (inspired by the physics term denoting the infinitely dense point at the center of a black hole), and he arrives at the 2029 date by extrapolating curves based on what he calls the “law of accelerating returns.” This is “Moore’s Law” (the doubling of computing power every year) on steroids, applied to every conceivable area of science, technology and economics.

Ptolemy’s portrayal of Kurzweil is unmistakably positive, but to his credit he includes several critics from both religion and science. From the former, a radio host named Chuck Missler, a born-again Christian who heads the Koinonia Institute (“dedicated to training and equipping the serious Christian to sojourn in today’s world”), proclaims: “We have a scenario laid out that the world is heading for an Armageddon and you and I are going to be the generation that’s alive that is going to see all this unfold.” He seems to be saying that Kurzweil is right about the second coming, but wrong about what it is that is coming. (Of course, Missler’s prognostication is the N+1 failed prophecy that began with Jesus himself, who told his followers (Mark 9:1): “Verily I say unto you, That there be some of them that stand here, which shall not taste of death, till they have seen the kingdom of God come with power.”) Another religiously-based admonition comes from the Stanford University neuroscientist William Huribut, who self-identifies as a “practicing Christian” who believes in immortality, but not in the way Kurzweil envisions it. “Death is conquered spiritually,” he pronounced.

On the science side of the ledger, Neil Gershenfeld, director of the Center for Bits and Atoms at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, sagely notes: “What Ray does consistently is to take a whole bunch of steps that everybody agrees on and take principles for extrapolating that everybody agrees on and show they lead to things that nobody agrees on.” Likewise, the estimable futurist Kevin Kelly, whose 2010 book What Technology Wants paints a much more realistic portrait of what our futures may (or may not) hold, asks rhetorically “What happens in 40 years from now and Ray dies and doesn’t have his father back? What does all this mean? Was he wrong? Well, he was right about some things. But in my observation the precursors of those technologies that would have to exist simply are not here. Ray’s longing for this, his expectation, is heartwarming, but it isn’t going to happen.” Kelly agrees that Kurzweil’s exponential growth curves are accurate but that the conclusions and especially the inspiration drawn from them are not. “He seems to have no doubts about it and in this sense I think he is a prophetic type figure who is completely sure and nothing can waiver his absolute certainty about this. So I would say he is a modern day prophet…that’s wrong.”

Transcendent Man is clearly meant to be an uplifting film celebrating all the ways science and technology have and are going to enrich our lives. I don’t know if it is the music or the cinematography or the subject himself, but I found Transcendent Man to be a sad film about a genius who has been in agony since the premature death of his father at age 58. Fredric Kurzweil was a professional musician who Ray’s mother says on camera was never around while his charge was growing up. Like father like son—Kurzweil’s own workaholic tendencies in his creation of over a dozen companies starting when he was 17 meant he never really knew his father. As the film portrays the tormented inventor, Kurzweil’s mission in life seems more focused on resurrecting his patriarch than rescuing humanity.

An especially lachrymose moment is when Kurzweil is rifling through his father’s journals and documents in a storage room dedicated to preserving his memory until the day that all this “data” (including Ray’s own fading memories) can be reconfigured into an A.I. simulacrum so that father and son can be reunited. Through heavy sighs and wistful looks Kurzweil comes off not as a proselytizer on a mission but as a man tormented. It is, in fact, the film’s leitmotif. In one scene Kurzweil is shown wiping away a tear at his father’s gravesite, in another he pauses over photographs and looks longingly at mementos, and in another cut at the beach Kurzweil recalls the day his father “uncharacteristically” phoned him just days before his death, as if he’d had a premonition. Although Kurzweil says he is optimistic and cheery about life, he can’t seem to stop talking about death: “It’s such a profoundly sad, lonely feeling that I really can’t bear it,” he admits. “So I go back to thinking about how I’m not going to die.” One wonders how much of life he is missing by over thinking death, or how burdensome it must surely be to imbibe over 200 supplement tables a day and have your blood tested and cleansed every couple of months, all in an effort to reprogram the body’s biochemistry.

There is something almost religious about Kurzweil’s scientism, an observation he himself makes in the film, noting the similarities between his goals and that of the world’s religions: “the idea of a profound transformation in the future, eternal life, bringing back the dead—but the fact that we’re applying technology to achieve the goals that have been talked about in all human philosophies is not accidental because it does reflect the goal of humanity.” Although the film never discloses Kurzweil’s religious beliefs (he was raised by Jewish parents as a Unitarian Universalist), in a (presumably) unintentionally humorous moment that ends the film Kurzweil reflects on the God question and answers it himself: “Does God exist? I would say, ‘Not yet.’” Cheeky.

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Cell Phones and Cancer

Ever since the publication of physicist Dr. Bernard Leikind’s article in Skeptic (see eSkeptic for June 9, 2010) and my subsequent column in Scientific American in which I cited Leikind’s arguments (both of which were skeptical of claims that cell phone use causes brain cancer), we have been inundated with letters disputing our skepticism. The letters come in a variety of flavors, so what follows are Dr. Leikind’s responses to the critics that he identifies by their email names. My own response to critics will appear in the next issue of Scientific American, so in the meantime I defer to Dr. Leikind’s responses below, as well as to the SkepDoc Harriet Hall, M.D. along with oncologist Dr. David Gorski, both of whom blog at ScienceBasedMedicine.org, which covers the ongoing controversy over cell phones and cancer.

For example, when I queried her on my critics, Dr. Hall responded to me:

I agree that it is premature to say that cell phones “can’t possibly” cause cancer, although Leikind is correct to say physics shows they can’t possibly do it by the mechanisms that have been commonly proposed. The fact remains: there is no good evidence that cell phones do cause cancer. And so far I’m not convinced by the proposed mechanisms by which they might cause cancer. The radiation/mutation and tissue heating explanations have pretty well been debunked. I’m going to continue to think that cell phones don’t cause cancer — and that there is a high probability that the kind of radiation they emit “can’t” cause cancer — until I see something much more convincing in the way of evidence. If they do somehow cause cancer, studies to date have established that any effect can’t be a very large one. Any potential cancer risk pales against the high risk of accidents from using them while driving, and against the convenience and safety effects of having instant communication.

And I asked Dr. Gorski as well, and he responded to me thusly (with links to further reading):

Basically, as I said, the article is correct in dubbing the idea that cell phone radiation causes cancer as very, very improbable, but I thought Leikind went too far in declaring it “impossible” based a priori on physics because, quite frankly, he completely ignores newer biological understanding of mechanisms of carcinogenesis. As I said in my post, I do not believe that cell phones cause cancer. I consider it highly unlikely and implausible. I do think, however, that declaring it “impossible” is premature. More reading from ScienceBasedMedicine.org:

http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/?p=84
http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/?p=8
http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/?p=3073
http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/?p=3666

And, here’s my explanation on just how complex cancer is:

http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/?p=4832

Finally, Dr. Leikind sent me this wonderful general response to the critics, which I happen to agree with and will be interested in hearing from readers about this ongoing controversy:

It interests me that so many readers see “microwaves from cell phones cannot cause cancer” and understand us to be saying “there are no physiological effects from microwaves.” But our message is not that there are no physiological effects, but that we (the appropriate scientists and engineers) know exactly what the physiological effects of absorbing microwaves are. And those effects cannot cause cancer, and we know this because there are many identical but more powerful similar effects, such as exercise. No one thinks that exercise causes cancer. I also find it persuasive that no one is concerned about cell phone microwaves causing skin cancer. But the radiation is more intense in our hands, ears, and scalp than it is in brains or optic or auditory nerves, and skin cells reproduce many times more frequently than any glial brain cells, and even many more times more frequently than any neuron cells.

Dr. Leikind’s responses to the posted critiques of my and his claims follow:

GreenMind suspects that I may have ties to the cell phone industry. I use an old model Motorola RAZR V3 cell phone and pay T-Mobile about $40 per month for my cell phone service. I would be happy to earn some money from my investigation and writing about cell phones and cancer.

The precautionary principle draws passionate support from public health care professional, Dr. Martin Donohoe. In the case of cell phone microwave radiation, scientists have already done the appropriate research. We know exactly what happens when any material, including living tissue, absorbs microwave radiation. The microwave energy appears as additional shaking, jostling, rattling and rolling of the molecules. In a living human being with her powerful temperature control mechanisms functioning and her blood flowing, we know that there is no potential for microwave radiation from a cell phone to cause significant, widespread or irreparable harm. Therefore, the precautionary principle does not apply. The situation is different when someone invents a new chemical. The precautionary principle would apply to eating cell phones but not to talking on them. It would not apply to texting while driving because the harmful potential is well known.

Freedom for All and dideldum worry about power levels and heating. A cell phone emits about a watt of microwave radiation. Some of that power enters the user’s hand, ear, scalp, skull, and brain and other tissues. To produce this watt of microwave radiation, the cell phone’s electronics must convert somewhat more than a watt of power from its batteries. The excess power and all of the power that goes to operate the circuitry of the phone appears as a temperature increase in the phone. The phone may feel warm. This energy transfers to the user’s hand or ear. Some may transfer to the environment by infrared radiation or convection. This energy does not cause cancer. The temperature increase in the human brain from absorbed cell phone microwave radiation is so small that many researchers mistakenly believe that there are non-thermal effects. The temperature never reaches the various potentially harmful temperatures that Freedom cites.

GreenMind questions Dr. Shermer’s and my statement that there is no known mechanism by which cell phone microwaves might cause cancer. I claim more than that there is no known mechanism. I assert that there is no unknown mechanism.

To summarize, here is the proof. We know exactly what happens to the cell phone microwaves the body absorbs. The energy transfers from the radiation to jostling, jiggling, vibrating and twisting of the molecules. From there, the energy enters to flowing blood, reaches the entire body, and moves to the environment. If the power flow is large, the transfer to the environment will occur primarily by the evaporation of sweat. For the watt or less absorbed from cell phones, the transfer will occur by small changes to the flow of blood to the body’s surface causing slight increases in radiation, conduction, and convection to the environment. There is little temperature increase in a living human being from cell phone microwaves. We know many other processes and effects that produce exactly the same effects at much greater energy and power levels, and all of these are safe and do not cause cancer. Exercise is one such process. Wearing a ski cap is another.

Any researcher who proposes a mechanism by which cell phone radiation might trigger or enhance carcinogenesis is welcome to do so, but must begin with the process described, and also explain why much larger, but otherwise identical processes, do not trigger the proposed mechanism. This thought informs my consideration of the many real and supposed physiological effects of microwave radiation cited by readers.

In the following, I use colloquial language but I could have used the technical terms. Knowledgeable scientists will recognize what these are. I mention specific readers in these notes, but often other readers made similar points.

Richard2010 correctly asserts that it might be possible to modify the complicated and lengthy process by which an initiating incident leads to cancer. He says that microwaves might influence any of the intermediate steps that do not involve breakage of DNA. The only means by which cell phone microwave radiation might influence those steps is through the jiggling, jostling, rocking and rolling that occur when the organism’s thermal control system is functioning. Test tube experiments that do not reproduce the stable temperature conditions in a living organism, however, are not relevant. While some can imagine putative carcinogenic mechanisms from electromagnetic radiation, the only forms of electromagnetic radiation that cause cancer, ultraviolet, X-rays, and gamma rays, operate by breaking chemical bonds in DNA.

Megahurtz, Richard2010, and many other readers assert that microwaves have physiological effects. Some readers cite Russian studies, well known to researchers in this field. Western scientists could not replicate the Russian studies, and do not credit them. Readers point to therapeutic methods. Every therapeutic method that involves microwaves begins with the process I describe. Therapeutic use of microwaves always involves heating tissues.

Monastralblue asserts that microwaves modify chemical bonds or transfer molecules from one quantum state to another nearby state without breaking the bonds. Quantum states of molecules that differ by such a small amount of energy that a microwave photon might cause a transition from one state, the supposedly safe one, to another, the supposedly bad one, will be virtually equally populated in the living organism because of the random shaking, rattling, and rolling of the organism’s molecules. The supposedly bad state will not be empty. If population of the supposed state were bad in some way, carcinogenic or cancer enhancing, then the state would be doing its dirty work at all times.

fscr37 says that Dr. Shermer and I have unstated assumptions and implies that these may be unjustified. The primary scientific assumption that pertains to the question of cell phones and cancer is that the laws of physics apply to biological systems, to organisms, just as they apply to anything else.

The various speculative models, such as the resonance effects to which fscr37 refers, are unphysical and unbiological because they neglect to consider the environment in an organism when they supposedly occur. The energy exchange time, the time it takes for a molecule to transfer energy within its own modes of oscillation or with its neighbors, is about a hundred quadrillionths of a second, 10-13 seconds. This is the result of direct measurements. The oscillation periods of microwave radiation are about a hundred trillionth of a second, 10-10 seconds. That is, molecular jostling will interrupt any buildup of energy by any individual molecule or bond long before the processes frscr37 cites might develop.

Iward notes that the risk that a cell may become cancerous relates to the rate at which it divides. In the brain, for example, neurons divide rarely, if at all, while glial cells divide more often. In adults, brain cancers are gliomas, not neuromas. If there were some effect of microwaves on carcinogenesis related to the division rate of cells, we’d expect that the microwaves might cause skin cancer in phone users’ hands, ears, and scalp. The skin cells divide much more rapidly than any brain cells, and the intensity of the radiation is higher in these skin cells than in any brain cells. Cell phone radiation does not cause skin cancer, and no one fears that it might.

Iward, hereticoftruth, Mark Pine guess that cell phone microwave radiation might have chemical effects other than breaking DNA molecules and refer specifically to denaturing of enzymes. Large, complex biological molecules (and small ones too) take on their shapes through a combination of strong covalent bonds and many weaker chemical bonds, such as hydrogen bonds, van der Waals bonds, and others. Denaturing a molecule refers to the process by which the molecule assumes another form, denaturing. It assumes the denatured form by breaking bonds, mostly weak ones. A cell phone’s microwave radiation absorbed by a living human being cannot denature any biological protein or enzyme unless that radiation can substantially increase the tissue’s temperature in the living organism. High power microwave radiation, much higher than from any cell phone, may damage the cornea in this way. Cooking tissue is bad, but does not cause cancer.

Rivk, tomerg compares microwave cooking with absorbing microwave radiation from a cell phone. Sending microwave power into a roast in a microwave oven causes the temperature of the meat to rise. Sending the same microwave power into a living human being causes the person to sweat with little temperature increase. Dr. Eleanor Adair and others have done this experiment many times. Microwaving a human being causes sweat, not cancer. Can readers guess the difference between a cut of meat and a human being?

Microwaving a person with power levels similar to those of a microwave oven is safe and does not cause cancer. It is not a good idea to microwave a man’s testicles because they prefer temperatures lower than core body temperature. It is a bad idea to microwave your cornea or lens because they have little or no blood supply to provide cooling.

Kiya, jschunke, and pradhangegeorge say that they and other people are hypersensitive to electromagnetic radiation and cite personal experience of these effects from their cell phone use. There is no such thing as electromagnetic sensitivity. It is an imaginary ailment. All double blind tests show that no one can tell if a cell phone or cell phone tower is radiating except through the usual human senses, such as looking at the screen or holding the phone and noting that it is warm. There have been many amusing reports of locals developing vague symptoms when the phone company installs a tower, symptoms that disappear when investigation reveals that the company has not yet installed the amplifiers. Perhaps Kiya would be less prone to headaches if he or she were to choose less annoying people to talk to.

Richard2010 refers to non-thermal effects of microwave radiation. There are none in living organisms, in humans. This fact has not prevented mistaken researchers from doing studies and publishing about non-thermal effects. These researchers mistake the fact that they do not observe a temperature increase with something non-thermal taking place. By their definition, an ice cube melting in a glass of tea or water boiling would be non-thermal effects, but they are thermal effects. Every effect of cell phone microwave radiation must be a thermal effect because the absorbed energy goes into shaking, wiggling, rocking and rolling of the molecules. None of the energy goes anywhere else. If this causes changes to the blood-brain barrier, just to choose one example, then plenty of other things would also cause changes to the blood-brain barrier, such as wearing a ski cap. Wearing a ski cap is safe as long as it doesn’t cover your eyes.

Islesin refers to a comment in Microwave News. This journal has long added to the public’s fears of imagined harm from electromagnetic fields. Scientific American readers may remember the kerfuffle about potential harm from high voltage power lines and household appliances. Microwave News was on the wrong side of that issue too.

On the Internet I am often known as Left Coast Bernard. I say to my neighbor, CaliforniaJoe, that photons are the chunks of energy that carry all forms of electromagnetic radiation, not just visible light.

Agdavis comments on the units in Dr. Shermer’s column, which come from my Skeptic magazine essays. Chemists like to use kJ/mol, kilojoules per mole, which is an energy density, because they like matters relevant to test tube quantities. Using kJ/mol to refer to the energy in a chemical bond is telling us how much energy is in an Avogadro number of bonds, 6 X 1023. An Avogadro number of things is known as a mole, abbreviated mol. A watt-hour is a unit of energy (not a watt per hour); Joules. Physicists would prefer to use a density, just as chemists do. They would refer to Joules/bond or Joules/molecule, while the chemists like Joules per mole, a much larger, test tube sized number. Another reader confuses a mole of cell phones with a mole of photons from a cell phone. Comparing the energy in a mole of chemical bonds with the energy in a mole of microwave photons is correct thinking because it is also comparing the energy in a single bond with the energy in a single photon. The physical effect is, as always, one photon to one bond. Microwave photons do not have sufficient energy to modify any chemical bond, strong or weak.

Monastralblue comments upon safety factors. Here is the way, roughly speaking, that the appropriate organizations establish safety factors for non-ionizing radiation. Since it is a well-established fact that this radiation transfers its energy into tissues as additional shaking, rattling, and rolling, the safety committees find the lowest detectable power level that produces a detectable temperature change, not the lowest level at which some harm occurs. Then they divide this level by 10 or 100. This becomes the official safe level. Exceeding the safe level only means that some temperature increase might be noticed, not that any harm would occur.

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