REALLity Check

by David Bloomberg

Hoo-boy, still catching up from the overflow last month. But don’t worry, I should have plenty of time to get caught up next month, when the Y2K problems and miracles don’t happen. (Consider that my psychic prediction.)

Those Talkative Dead People

Among the things that I predict is that the dead will not rise from the grave. So we’ll just have to find other ways to talk to them, I guess. USA Weekend had an article about a supposedly scientific examination of the possibility of dead people being able to talk to us (10/1). Alas, while the article portrays it as scientific, the protocols leave a bit to be desired.

Basically, you pick a message (like a short phrase) known only to you and store it, encrypted, in a computer. Then you die (I would guess most subjects aren’t terribly fond of that part). Then, you send that message back to a living friend or relative, who relays it to scientists on this project, who check it against the one you stored in the computer while you were alive. If it hits, bingo!

Of course, there’s one rather large problem here - you know the phrase while you’re still alive. The folks running the project (a husband and wife team at the University of Arizona) have no way of knowing if you pass along this phrase to somebody before you die. What’s interesting is that the article quotes Skeptic magazine publisher Michael Shermer as saying the project seems scientifically well-designed. I find that hard to believe. The article does end with another quote from him, saying, “We’d all like this to be true. But when we want something to be true so badly, that’s when we have to be especially careful not to be fooled.” Indeed - and the protocols, as described in this article, leave way too much room for getting fooled.

Upside Down & Backwards

In the Chicago Tribune, each Sunday brings a small “Alternative Watch” in the FamilyHealth section. Usually it’s meaningless (“Eat healthy!”). But the one on October 3 was a bit odd.

It talked about a study on a new medicine, VEGF, that was supposed to stimulate the growth of new coronary blood vessels to the heart (kind of a do-it-yourself bypass). They gave 1/3 of the study a low dose, 1/3 a higher dose, 1/3 a saline shot (placebo). At the end of the study, they tested the group to see who could walk longer on a treadmill. The low-dose went 26 seconds longer, the higher-dose went 32 seconds longer, and the placebo went 43 seconds longer! While the conclusion was that there was no statistically significant difference, it does show how powerful an effect placebos can have.

What’s really interesting is that the article claims that “some alternative health practitioners ... have long contended the ‘placebo effect’ is too often unexplored in research studies.”

Huh? Since when do they claim that? It’s those of us on the skeptical side who are pointing out that the placebo effect is often not looked at by the alternative practitioners. In fact, that’s the main reason for double-blind scientific studies - to account for the control group and the placebo effect. And that’s what gets me the most about the author here claiming that it’s alternative medicine proponents who say the placebo effect has been ignored - they’re the ones who so often don’t want to do the proper studies. Instead, they claim it worked for somebody, so it’s good! Very odd conclusion by the author of this article, but at least it still showed that the placebo effect can be powerful and needs to be accounted for in all studies.

Evolution: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Science has had its ups and downs in the past couple months as different states have treated evolution in widely varying manners. First, the Kansas state board of education removed it from their science standards. Then Kentucky has followed suit, though perhaps for different reasons. And New Mexico struck back by emphasizing evolution. Meanwhile, Kansas is reconsidering their standards! Whoa. And that’s not to mention Illinois (see “From the Chairman,” this issue).

Ok, one step at a time.

Kentucky substituted the phrase “change over time” for “evolution” in their science standards. According to an article on (10/6), they claimed they made the change because of “testing sensitivity” guidelines, which are there to avoid making kids take a position on controversial matters. Also, they claimed the word “evolution” is “a lightning rod that creates a diversion from what we’re teaching, and we did not want to advocate a particular doctrine or a specific view.” Of course - why advocate the position of science in a science class? How silly!

The director of the Kentucky Science Teachers Association said that a lot of teachers are upset and added, “Why don’t we just stop calling the sunrise the sunrise?”

This change appears to have been slipped in rather slyly. “Evolution” was actually in the guidelines as presented to the state Board of Education, but was removed by officials of the education department. The change didn’t require approval by the Board, but one member was quoted as saying the change should have been brought to their attention. Indeed, it should have - but apparently the folks who made the change learned nothing from the way people reacted when Kansas removed evolution. While this change is much less severe, it is a case of using unclear language when there is a perfectly suitable term - evolution. The fact that some people are upset by this term should not mean science should bend to their wishes.

New Mexico, on the other hand, seems to “get it.” In that state, a Board of Education committee unanimously approved changed to the science standards that would actually strengthen the teaching of evolution! They removed language that implied the teaching creationism or “intelligent design” (the newer slick term to hide creationism) was supported. The change won’t really affect much of what’s being taught in New Mexico classrooms, but science teachers are happy with the clear standards - something that needs to be relayed to the folks in Kentucky and, not incidentally, here in Illinois.

But then there’s Kansas. On the plus side, the Board voted to have its Education Commissioner propose changes to the science standards they approved a couple months ago. But they didn’t tell him how to do it.

The really amusing part, though, is that this has been spurred, at least in part, because three national science groups have refused to allow the Board to use their copyrighted materials in their standards because of the contempt the Board has shown for science. The National Research Council (an arm of the National Academy of Sciences), the National Science Teachers Association, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science all stood up and said Kansas’ new standards fail to advance science education, and therefore they would not allow their materials to be used. Even so, the Board chairwoman has said the rewrite is unlikely to reverse its decision about removing evolution. She just wants the standards rewritten to avoid copyright problems.

Five of the ten members, including the chairwoman and three others who supported the standards, are up for re-election next year. Hopefully, the voters will pay attention to this race and vote these folks out of office.

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