Naturopaths Are Not Doctors

By Michael Hawkins

Okay, maybe that headline isn’t entirely accurate.

Naturopaths are people who practice an alternative form of medicine which has little to no basis in reality. Under Maine law, they are actually considered doctors. They aren’t medical doctors, mind you. No, no. Maine law holds them to a lower standard, meaning they are Naturopathic Doctors (ND), not MD’s. This also gives them fewer rights than real doctors. Be thankful.

Naturopathy is a belief that the body can heal itself via its “vital force”. This is entirely magical thinking which has no basis in science, is contradicted by everything in chemistry and biochemistry, and has never had any significant research done in its favor.

One local naturopathic ‘doctor’, Christopher Maloney, wrote a letter to the editor of the Kennebec Journal several months ago. In it he espoused several untruths, verging into flat out lies. This is common practice for these sort of people, so it isn’t surprising. What was especially unfortunate, though, was that the KJ ran an extra blurb explaining that naturopaths are considered to be a certain type of doctor under Maine state law. This was entirely unnecessary and, if one is to use the standards of the medical community at large, dangerous because it gives undue gravitas to a field where relatively little medical training is actually required.

One of the dangerous things Maloney told readers was that the flu vaccine only provides 6 to 15 percent protection. He misconstrued some basic statistics. In reality (and according to the CDC), the flu vaccine offers upwards of a 90% reduction in becoming infected with the flu for healthy adults. And even in the instances where someone still gets the flu after being vaccinated, the virus is much less intense.

The reason Maloney and other naturopaths want the public to believe these things is that they are generally hyper-skeptical of vaccinations (just like Jenny McCarthy). While a faux-sympathetic tone towards vaccines is sometimes taken by these people, they actually seek to raise significant doubt; it’s one of their most obvious goals. Of course, ask them to supply any evidence to the general danger of vaccines and, well, “evidence” may well need to be defined for these people.

For instance, a review of Maloney’s site, http://www.maloneymedical.com, shows a section on autism and vaccines where Maloney offers several links to a single anecdotal story (which isn’t convincing on its own merits anyway). He ends with several other links, the most prominent of which may be his own personal anecdote.

This is not evidence.

Deepening the hole into which he placed his anti-scientific letter, Maloney goes on to state that the flu vaccine has no effect on deadly complications for any population group. What he doesn’t say is that the non-mountebank truth is that they reduce hospitalization in the elderly by 50-60% (CDC). Death rate falls by 80% (CDC).

Next – and this one really irked me – Maloney tells readers that black elderberry has been shown to “block” H1N1. The worst thing about this blatant falsehood was just how easy it was to find out the truth. PubMed features two peer-reviewed studies on this. Both (by largely the same group) show that black elderberry had some positive effects for the regular flu, but the study size was small and thus more research needs to be done. (In other words, no respected member of the medical field would ever start making recommendations on such a miniscule sample of evidence.) At no point in the paper was it indicated that black elderberry has any sort of vaccination properties (either for H1N1 or what it was actually studying – the regular flu), which is what Maloney seems to imply.

It’s because of this sort of malarkey that naturopaths are not generally considered doctors within the medical community at large. Maine law must change to reflect this fact.

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Why Buying Local Doesn’t Work

Update: I allowed this to be published prior to my knowledge that Mr. Hartwell was unfit to practice journalism – he fails to fact check and he’s bad at his job. I do not disavow any specific aspect of what has been written below, but what follows would not be published by me today.

By Michael Hartwell

Pseudoscience comes from many angles. Woo is woo, but the major forms skeptics encounter are in biology, medicine and physics – “hard” sciences. Economics is an ugly cousin to these disciplines. It’s imprecise, it overlaps with politics and there are major disagreements among the experts.

Still, economic pseudoscience exists. The particular economic woo I’m writing about here is called “local purchasing” or localism. You have probably witnessed a campaign to “buy local” by purchasing goods and services from businesses with headquarters in your area. This is said to “keep the money in the community.” Next, the local business owner spends the money at another local store, creating a “multiplier effect.” The chef buys from the farmer, who buys from the shoemaker, who buys from the mechanic, etc.

By restricting sales within the community, we are told, this closed-loop system will generate jobs and wealth within the community. The money leaves the community, however, if we buy from outsiders and wealth and jobs are lost.

This sounds reasonable to the general public, but it is pure pseudoscience. The closest skeptical comparison is the scheme to create energy by burning hydrogen from seawater. The flaw was that advocates kept track of the energy coming out of the system, but ignored all the energy that went in to separate the hydrogen. Burning salt water creates a net energy loss, while local purchasing preferences impoverishes a community.

What economists know

Localism is really a rehash of an outdated economic view called mercantalism, where entire nations thought restricting trade would create wealth. They thought nations would become rich by increasing their exports and decreasing their imports. Goods and services would leave the nation, and gold and silver would come in.

Adam Smith disproved mercantalism with his book The Wealth of Nations in 1776, arguing that wealth is not in gold and silver, but in goods and resources. Money is just a proxy for resources. By specializing in the production of some goods and trading for others, people can take advantage of economies of scale and end up wealthier than the nations that tried to be self-sufficient. A Smithian nation would become very good at making Item X and trade some surplus for Item Y from a neighbor, while a mercantilist nation would do a mediocre job of producing Item X and Item Y and trade some of it away for shiny pieces of metal.

Building onto Smith’s work, David Ricardo introduced comparative advantage with his 1817 book Principles of Political Economy and Taxation. Comparative Advantage is counter-intuitive, rarely understood by the public and undeniably true. It is the idea that entities should concentrate not on the tasks that they are the most skilled at, but the tasks that require their most valuable skills in comparison with other entities.

For example, say John Lennon and Neil Diamond are on a camping trip and want to listen to some music while sitting around a warm fire. One person needs to play the guitar while the other constantly tends the fire. Let’s assume Neil Diamond is a talented musician, but the worst fire-stoker in history and would let the flames go out, while John Lennon is internationally recognized as the most talented musician and fire-stoker of the century. Who should do which task?

The optional choice is to have John stoke the fire while Neil plays the guitar. Even though John is better at both, he benefits from having Neil around to play the guitar while he works on the fire. In essence, they are specializing in tasks and trading with each other. So with Smith’s strategy of dividing tasks and trading, and Ricardo’s addition of assigning entities to the tasks where their skills are needed the most, international trade has emerged as a critical tool in creating wealth and improving the standard of living for the general public.

The “multiplier effect” that localists and other mercantilists cite is a real concept, but more inevitable than they realize. Economic Journalist Frédéric Bastiat famously criticized this sort of scheme in his 1850 essay Ce qu’on voit et ce qu’on ne voit pas (That Which is Seen and That Which is Unseen) with a parable about breaking windows.
A boy throws a stone through the window of a local bakery and a crowd of people gather around, displeased at the vandalism. One person tries to find a silver lining and suggests the ruffian is actually a social benefactor, as the baker will now have to hire the local glazier for a new window. The glazier will have more money to buy from the cobbler. Everyone is happy and believes the local economy has been stimulated.

Sound familiar yet?

But no one bothered to ask the baker what he thinks. They forgot to look at the other half of the equation – where the money for the glazier is coming from. It turns out the baker had been saving up his money to buy a new suit from the tailor, but now has to buy another window. The tailor could have spent that money at the cobbler, and so on and so forth. The community is now a little bit poorer as the baker has one less suit then he otherwise would have.

As Adam Smith showed, wealth is in resources and destruction doesn’t create resources – it destroys them. Bastiat went on to say that burning the city of Paris down to the cobblestones would create jobs in reconstruction, but destroy wealth.

Enter the woo-promoters and misguided social activists

But not everyone has read Smith, Ricardo or Bastiat. Modern mercantilists claim the nation will be wealthier if we buy domestic products, subsidize domestic companies, oppose immigrant labor and thwart the outsourcing of jobs. It’s the same bag of bones; only instead of trading away goods and services for precious metals they accept green pieces of paper.

Economist David Henderson coined the phrase “Do-It-Yourself Economics,” which are “firmly held intuitive economic ideas and beliefs which owe little or nothing to textbooks, treatises or the evidence of economic history.”

It’s not that localists and other mercantilists have new insights that have overturned some dusty old ideas, it’s that they never read them and aren’t aware they exist. As Paul Krugman wrote in his 1996 Pop Internationalism, a wonderful book on economic woo:

“…We learn that the authors on my reading list do not base their disdain for academic economics on a superior or more subtle understanding. Rather, their views are startlingly crude and uniformed… [the view] is dominated by entirely ignorant men, who have managed to convince themselves and everyone else who matters that they have deep insights, but are in fact unaware of the most basic principles of and facts about the world economy.”
The point of jobs are not to keep people busy, they are to produce things of value. However, pseduoeconomic schemes often focus on creating useless jobs instead of producing things. Milton Friedman once mocked a purposely-inefficient job-creation program that made workers dig with shovels instead of backhoes by suggesting they be given spoons instead.

Imagine two castaways stuck on a deserted island. The first night they agree one will gather firewood while the other scrounges for food. However, 50 feet into the brush the food-gatherer discovers a third castaway with a ten-year supply of non-perishable food he’s eager to share. What reaction do you suppose the castaway who was attempting to gather food would have?

Would you expect him to be upset and saddened?

No? But remember, he just lost his job. A “foreigner” is attempting to flood his little economy with cheap food. Of course, he would be happy to have it, as letting someone else provide food frees him up to work on other tasks, such as building a shelter or making a rescue-signal. The same lesson applies to the division of labor in advanced societies. Letting someone else grow our food frees us up to work on other things, like entertainment or medical technology. It doesn’t matter what side of the community border they do it on.

Taking localism claims seriously

Now that I’ve described how economists see wealth, money and jobs, let’s look back at the economic claims of the basic “buy local” movement.

The claim is that by purchasing things entirely from within the community, money will stay in the community and the community will become wealthier.

So that means that the community will turn resources into goods using jack-of-all-trade production, instead of specializing. Therefore, more resources will be used to create fewer goods. These goods will then be traded within the community. The focus is to “buy local” but not to “sell local” so occasionally goods will be sold outside the community and more green pieces of paper will come in. However, no new goods will be allowed into the community – they must be made locally, so the volume of green pieces of paper will increase.

Localism concentrates on what the merchants take in, but it forgets to factor in what consumers pay out. Higher production costs mean local goods will cost more to buy, so the purchasing power of these green pieces of paper will decrease. In addition, with resources leaving the community and more green pieces of paper coming in, the ratio of resources to currency will change. This is essentially inflation, and merchants will demand more money as goods become scarce while they are awash in currency. Even in their perfect dream economy, dollar bills may stay in the community, but wealth will not increase, as wealth means having more goods and resources.

Buying local means higher prices, fewer choices, longer work hours and a lower standard of living. It claims that using inefficient production will increase the amount of goods and resources. By slowing down, we’ll go faster. Resources will be conjured from thin air. It is pseudoscience, pure and simply.

Localists are classic pseudoscientists

We all understand that creationists know next to nothing about biology. They do not study biology. Normally, we shouldn’t fault a person for that, but these people have a great interest in biology. We know this because they speak about biology all the time. They do not make sophisticated criticisms based on intimate knowledge of the subject, but instead make “common sense” observations on a crude version of biology.

Localist activists are the same way. Clearly, they have a deep interest in economics. They talk at length about the multiplier effect, supply and demand and growth. They don’t know anything about comparative advantage, economies of scale, creative destruction or trade. Apparently, their interest in economics isn’t strong enough to get them to actually study economics.

They want the veneer of science, so they cite what they refer to as studies – non-peer-reviewed amateur reports they claim show financial benefits. All of these so-called studies come from two sources. The transparently-named “Institute for Local Self Reliance” and a small firm called “Civic Economics,” which as far as I can tell is two guys in Austin Texas with a pocket calculator.

In a 2008 Buy Local debate at the University of Vermont, localist Bill McKibben used a classic “Gish Gallop” tactic against economist Russ Roberts, demanding he respond to a list of bogus claims too long to address in the time allotted.

And like conspiracy theorists, localism is a hydra with many heads. Decapitating the economic claims causes believers to shift to claims about the environment, national security or aesthetics. This is the critical response I expect to receive, even though Brian Dunning has already done a great job of exploding the environmental claims.

Changing Views

By Michael Hawkins

What would change my view on evolution?

It depends what is meant by “change”. My view on evolution changes quite frequently, actually. Sometimes it’s a qualitative change: the relationships between our known ancestral cousins are always shifting ever so slightly. Often, there is little consensus about where to place certain members of the genus Homo on the evolutionary tree. As new evidence is found, as more research is done, as further facts come to light, my views are always changing on that aspect of evolution.

And then there are quantitative changes. One excellent example comes from the discovery of tetrapod footprints in 2009. That discovery pushed the evolution of tetrapods back about 18 million years. All the relationships between species of that general time period stayed the same, but our view of when tetrapods began to populate the land changed.

And then there are all sorts of other changes, like recently when it was shown that natural selection works differently on allele fixation in sexually reproducing populations versus more simple asexual populations. (That was also a qualitative change, but on the genetic, not taxonomic, level.)

So if that is what is meant by “change”, then there are all sorts of examples that show how my views on evolution are, well, evolving. The same can be said of biologists around the world. But what if by “change”, the real question being asked is, What would make me dismiss evolution? Then the answer is very different.

A basic fact of how science works is that it does not tend to operate on individual studies. It requires a body of evidence to change views. For example, I reject a connection between cell phone use and cancer. Studies have shown possible links, but they have been far from conclusive, weak even. And more importantly, there is a body of evidence showing no significant link. I’m going with the evidence in bulk, not the individual packaging. This relates directly to the question of what it would take to get me to dismiss evolution because there is a famous quote by J.B.S. Haldane I had in mind when starting this article. When asked what it would take to change his mind, he retorted, “Fossil rabbits in the Precambrian.”

But that wouldn’t change my mind. My very first suspicion would be fraud; I suspect little more from creationists (and we know how much they would be promoting such a discovery). But let’s say it came from a reputable research team, then what? I would admittedly be perplexed. There is no reason a fossil rabbit ought to be found in that era, but that doesn’t mean we get to throw out such a well established theory as evolution. We know evolution is true insomuch as we know gravity is true. It would necessarily take more than a few rabbit fossils to alter the unifying theory of biology, just as it would take more than an apple falling up for us to alter the theory of gravity. Even if we could never explain the fossils satisfactorily, I would have no doubts that evolution still formed the basis of everything in biology.

What would change my view would be the discovery of a number of fossils in all the wrong places. We would need to start finding mammals and birds dating back 800 million years; we would need to see dinosaur fossils embedded in the rocks of 20 million years ago; we would, yes, need to see rabbit fossils in the Precambrian. No, I wouldn’t need these specific examples, but I would need these sorts of examples. I don’t want just individual anomalies that fly in the face of modern theories. I need more than that: it takes a body of evidence to start changing my view.

Because that’s how science works.

Christians Deep Down

Christians say that all we need to believe is faith. We need to have faith that God is there, that he loves us. If we let him into our hearts, he will enter and it will be glorious.

But this isn’t what Christians really believe. They aren’t motivated by their so-called love or belief in their particular, cultural god. No. What motivates them is a hatred for science and rationality and reason. They refuse to let any of these things into their minds.

Deep down Christians know there is no God. They know that science has shown the world, for all intents and purposes, to be an atheistic one. They really do know that the Universe is 13.7 billion years old, that it is governed by understandable laws, that because of quantum mechanics and a law like gravity, there must be a Universe. They really do know that life is 3.9 billion years old, that it came from a simple replicator, that the why behind life is that genes will necessarily replicate as a population so long as they are able to do so. They really do know that humans are incidental, that natural selection does not demand we ever exist, and in fact, that it says our odds of being here would virtually disappear if the tape of life were to be re-run. They really do know that all that matters is what we do with the lives we have now because these are the only lives we will ever have. They really do know that things like love and sympathy and empathy and values and morality and all those special connections so many of us have with one another are what drive our goodwill. They really do know all these things and more.

But Christians will deny. They will deny it until the very end. The idea that science and reason and rationality have prevailed – not may prevail or will prevail, but *have* prevailed – hits at their very core. It destroys them to know that what they fundamentally hate is king of all. As H. L. Mencken once said, “The truth that survives is simply the lie that is pleasantest to believe.”

Okay. So are you offended? Does this all seem horribly polemic, horribly hateful, inaccurate, and unfair? Even if you aren’t a Christian, do you find the preceding paragraphs to be wildly stupid?

I hope so.

Now maybe we can stop hearing about how atheists really deep down just hate themselves, happiness, love, God, and everything else under the sun, hm?

When I Chose My Sexual Orientation

By Michael Hawkins

I think it was around 2000. I was 15 and in my freshmen year of high school. Adolescent hormones raged inside me. Everything in life was so busy, so much more complicated. I had all these new feelings inside me. Which sexual orientation was I to choose?

I created an excel flow chart that I worked on weekend after weekend. If I was going to figure out what I liked, I was going to need to make a rational decision with some hard data. I listed all the attributes I liked in guys in one area of the chart and all the attributes of girls I liked in another area. It was going to be a tough competition.

I took my sheets and translated them into tables and graphs. As I looked at the boys, I noticed several things I liked: We all seemed to like being assholes to each other, only guys seemed to want to go to the arcade, and we all had the same juvenile sense of humor. “What’s that, Billy? An armpit fart? Ho-ho, har-har! Well done, my friend! Well done! You are certainly in the running!”

I took a look at the tables and graphs for the girls. It looked like they had these magical things called “boobies”.

Then, to play it safe and sure, I rechecked the data, specifically looking at the graphs. Here’s what I got for the boys:

And for the girls:

There the science was right in front of me. I clearly had far more hard data in favor of the girls than the boys. I even compared my data set to those of my friends. Some had the same numbers. Others had more mixed information. Still others had just the inverse. I even found out girls had these things called “minds”. My choice was clear.

So when did you decide to be gay or straight? What sort of scientifically accurate charts did you make?

A basic of science

By Michael Hawkins

I often find myself reminded of a post I made on just the third day in the life of my blog. It was about a media report on a recent study that said a certain pesticide found in anti-bacterial soaps may actually contribute to the development of antibiotic resistance by bacteria. It was a fine study, but it was far from conclusive. (The news article wasn’t so cautious in its assertions.) Perhaps it would be best if people only used regular old soap, what with that not really qualifying as a real sacrifice, but as for the science, I was far from ready to say that that pesticide was a contributor to antibiotic resistance among bacteria in any significant way in the given environment.

And the reason is quite simple: science does not rely upon individual studies. Of course, we may be able to point back to the results from one lab or one group of researchers as published in a single study as the linchpin that opened up a whole new branch of study. But that doesn’t mean we believe that paper as being conclusive on its own. It only works when we have a body of evidence. In most cases that means a number of studies looking at the same or a similar problem and coming to the same or very similar conclusions. For a single paper that proves itself a linchpin, that means we need a number of other studies which use its findings as their basis. For instance, green fluorescent protein, or GFP, was shown to work as a marker of gene expression in a pretty definitive study. It has about a bajillion (rough estimate) other studies on it, but no one needed to reproduce the study which won one research team the Nobel Prize in chemistry. But people did use that study as a basis for about a gagillion (rough estimate again) studies. If the original study was wrong or faked or otherwise limited, we would be well aware of that by now because of all those subsequent studies. That is one way to compose a body of evidence.

To put this another way, take the studies on intercessory prayer and its efficacy. We have some that show positive results. “Look, God is here to help!” But then we have others that show negative results. “Oh, no! God must be angry!” And then we have a whole bunch which shows a null result. “Uh…God must be indifferent.” So how do we interpret these results?

Remember, we need to be looking at the evidence as a body. As one of those intolerant, bigoted, hate-filled evilutionist atheists, I would find it humorous, at least on one level, if prayer gave negative health results. But I don’t get to have that laugh. Instead, I have to conclude that prayer has no detectable effect on health. None of the studies are conclusive; they suffer from bias, or are statistically insignificant in either direction, or just show a blatant null result. The most likely conclusion is that prayer does nothing. No study has convinced me otherwise, and most of the studies have shown prayer to be inconsequential to the well being of people anyway.

What I hope this post enables readers to do is recognize a fundamental aspect of how science works so that next time they see a study which concludes a link between this or that, they know what to think. That doesn’t mean it is okay to just dismiss a non-bias confirming study (i.e., a study that doesn’t give a result one likes). It just means that it is always necessary to look at the entire body of evidence before drawing a conclusion.

April-May Edition

The new edition of Without Apology is out. I placed a little more than half the copies around UMA Wednesday, but I noticed they were just about all gone by 4 today. (And they aren’t being thrown away or anything, thankfully, as I’ve gotten reports of small piles still being present earlier on in the day.)

This edition has a pretty good variety of articles, I think. They range from sports, to non-sequiturs, to microsatellites, to history – and it’s that last one I think people should check out. It’s titled Bastardizing History and is by Gabriel Levesque (who I thank for his contribution).

Enjoy.

Bastardizing History

By Gabriel Levesque

History is too often called upon to support presentist ideological and political themes. Politicians and radio personalities use historical figures to suggest their ideas are correct and in accordance with some great historical figure. Polarizing images and comparisons with Lincoln, for example, dominated Obama’s campaign and the first year of his presidency. Obama’s political adversaries countered by comparing his policies with Soviet Russia and Joseph Stalin. This is a practice that is unfair and all too common. Historical figures are products of their particular era and of their own particular circumstances and life trajectory. Conjecture only bastardizes the historical process and creates falsities that damage the pursuit of truth.

A recent example of historical bastardization came in the way of January’s Supreme Court decision that blocked the ban on the corporate funding of political candidates. Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian logic were cited as precedents to support the court’s 5-4 decision. The First Amendment was granted to companies as a whole, thus allowing free speech in the form of monetary support. This is a shady deal that extends the probability that large corporations will continue to dominate U.S. policy making for some time. However, a detailed look at the morality of this decision is beyond the scope of this limited narrative. What is pertinent, however, is the fact that “Jeffersonian logic was upheld.” First of all, what is Jeffersonian logic? Jefferson has had his personality and thoughts twisted in every direction to meet almost every political scenario’s needs. From pro-slavery laws, to pro-abortion rulings and now to First Amendment monetary rights for large companies – Jefferson has been the raison d’étre. This is unfair on so many grounds. I will address two.

For starters, Jefferson has been dead for two centuries. Projecting what he might say now, or what he might have said about recent events is pure conjecture. Every event is a product of recent dealings and experiences. Jefferson would have little understanding of what corporate campaign spending is and what it means to the masses of America (in an aside note, Jefferson was initially against the formation of political parties as he saw them as dangerous). Jefferson was a product of the mid eighteenth century; his values, thinking, and reasoning are not our own. We live in a much different time. We live in an era of globality and complex integration where each person is interconnected in ways which are not always clear. Uranium miners in Uganda indirectly affect the relationship between Iran and the United States; local banks in Ireland fuel Portuguese shipping ventures. Jefferson lived in a pre-industrial agrarian society. The needs of the United States in early nineteenth century were very different from our twenty-first century needs.

Finally, the decisions we make should be about the benefit of the people who are living today. Using the dead as reasoning for current laws is a poor way to govern the masses. Precedents are only helpful when they aid the generation who stands today. History is important for understanding the human experience and trajectory. History can allow the current generation to examine relationships of the past and understand our moment in time. Applying past reasoning as justification for current situations and solutions is dangerous. Each situation is unique – every solution must be unique. Jefferson already served his sentence; let him rest.

Gabe is currently a graduate student at the University of Maine and can be contacted at Gabriel.Levesque@umit.maine.edu.