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SitP: Heina Dadabhoy from Islam to Atheism. [caption id="attachment_2139" align="alignright" width="239"] A ninja warrior welcomes guests to Convergence/Skepchickcon[/caption]Boston Skeptics welcomes our January guest speaker, atheist feminist secular...

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Book Club: The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha... [caption id="attachment_2131" align="alignright" width="197"] The Emperor of All Maladies[/caption]This month's book is The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee, an oncologist...

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SitP: David Ropeik and the Risk Perception Gap Update! Thanks to Andrea and Francois, we now have a video of David Ropeik's talk available on our

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SitP: Larry Gilbertson on GMOs and Biotech [caption id="attachment_2117" align="alignright" width="300"] Feeding the world[/caption]The population of the earth will exceed 9 billion people by 2050. Arable land is decreasing, dietary preferences...

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Book Club: “The Emperor of All Maladies” by Siddhartha Mukherjee

Posted on : 17-07-2015 | By : John | In : Book Club

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The Emperor of All Maladies

The Emperor of All Maladies

This month’s book is The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee, an oncologist at the CU/NYU Presbytarian Hospital and a wonderful writer. He is also assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University A former Rhodes scholar, he graduated from Stanford University, University of Oxford (where he received a PhD studying cancer-causing viruses) and from Harvard Medical School.[*]

This is quite a long and deep book, as it must be for such a vast subject. Cancer is not one disease, but hundreds of related diseases, with disparate causes, and the story of how it afflicts humanity and the long search for prevention, treatment and cures requires in depth discussion. Fortunately, we’ve had two months to read it, but if you’re just starting it now, you’re really going to have to cram for the examdiscussion! Still more fortunately, Dr. Mukherjee is a wonderful writer, able to explain complicated scientific concepts with great facility, explore history without getting bogged down in tedious lists of names and dates, and always keeping his deep sympathy for the doctors and researchers struggling to treat a disease that was once invariably fatal, and most especially their and his patients and their families.

SitP: Dr Alessio Fasano and Gluten Freedom

Posted on : 30-03-2015 | By : John | In : Event, local

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The structure of gluten

A little biochemistry…

Gluten is a protein structure found in wheat, barley and rye. It is the substance that gives bread its chewiness and because it is strong and stretchy, it helps bread dough trap the CO2 produced by yeast or baking powder, making it light and airy. To paraphrase Homer Simpson, “Mmmm gluten, is there anything you can’t do?”

Gluten has become one of the most controversial topics in the modern diet. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease triggered by one of the components of gluten. It causes abdominal pain and discomfort, constipation and diarrhea, anemia and fatigue. It affects millions of people, and in extreme cases, especially in children, it can cause serious vitamin and nutritional deficiencies because the inflamed small intestine doesn’t function properly. Long term, untreated celiac can lead to many serious complications. Celiac is distinct from wheat allergy, which also exists.

(Wheat allergies involve different components of the immune system reacting in different ways than what occurs in celiac, and are similar to other food allergies. Wheat allergies can be triggered by one or more of the many proteins in wheat, not just those in gluten.)

Many people who don’t have the classic symptoms of celiac or wheat allergies, or who were determined not to have those diseases by various diagnostic tests (which according to the Wikipedia articles appear to have very low false negative rates), none the less claim or suspect they have some sort of gluten sensitivity. Hence the enormous current interest in gluten-free foods. (“Gluten free” gets 107,000,000 hits on Google.)

So is wheat the staff of life, responsible for getting humanity out of the stone age, and in the top five discoveries ever (along with fire, the wheel, beer and video games), or is it the greatest evil ever perpetrated, responsible for more misery and death than cigarettes, automobiles, alcoholism and war combined?

our speaker, Dr Fasano The Boston Skeptics are fortunate to have as our guest for April’s Skeptics in the Pub world-renowned pediatric gastroenterologist, research scientist and entrepreneur Alessio Fasano, M.D., who is director of the Center for Celiac Research and Treatment at MassGeneral Hospital for Children (MGHfC). His prevalence study published in 2003 established the rate of celiac disease at 1 in 133 Americans.

His visionary research has led to the awareness of celiac disease and other gluten-related disorders as a growing public health problem in the United States and worldwide. As Visiting Professor at Harvard Medical School and Chief of the Division of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition at MGHfC, Dr. Fasano treats both children and adults for gluten-related disorders, including celiac disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity and wheat allergy.

A passionate advocate for collaboration in research and clinical work, Dr. Fasano recently authored Gluten Freedom to provide patients, healthcare providers and general readers an evidence-based yet entertaining book to dispel some of the current confusion about gluten and how it can affect your health.

Dr Fasano will tell us about his research, the causes and treatment for celiac disease, wheat allergies and gluten sensitivity, and I’m sure we have many questions on these topics.

We will be meeting at 7PM on Monday, April 6, 2015 in the back room at The Burren, 247 Elm St. in Davis Square, Somerville. RSVP on our Facebook event page. If enough people say they will attend in advance, the Burren will provide us with our own wait staff and/or bartender, which will avoid a crush of people trying to get food or drinks. Also, it might be a good idea to arrive a little early if you possibly can.

BTW, someone asked if the Burren has any gluten-free items on their menu. I am informed that the Cod Espanola, the Balsamic Chicken, the veggie shepherds pie and nachos are all gluten free.

Hopefully, we won’t have yet another blizzard!

UPDATE Dr Fasano’s talk is now available on Vimeo:


Dr. Alessio Fasano speaks at the Boston Skeptics in the Pub, April 6, 2015

SitP: Vitamin K Refusal with Clay Jones

Posted on : 26-02-2015 | By : John | In : Blog Post, Event, Skeptics in the Pub

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Newborn receiving a vitamin K shot

Newborn receiving a vitamin K shot


The Boston Skeptics are lucky to have members like Clay Jones, pediatrician and Science Based Medicine blogger. Clay will be joining us on Monday, March 2 for our next Skeptics in the Pub, to discuss yet another case of people ignoring the best scientific evidence for a medical treatment, to the detriment of their children. Tragically, several children have recently died and many more have suffered serious brain injury from internal bleeding that can easily be prevented by a vitamin K injection shortly after birth.

As Clay ably explains in a post on SBM, most or all newborns suffer from vitamin K deficiency. This is due to a variety of causes, ranging from an immature digestive system that can’t readily absorb vitamin K, an immature liver that doesn’t process vitamin K efficiently, lack of gut bacteria that help digest foods and release the vitamin K in them, and the low levels of vitamin K in human breast milk. (Infant formula is fortified with vitamin K, so deficiency is less a problem but not eliminated in formula-fed babies.) The first three causes are significantly worse in premature babies.

Vitamin K is essential to several processes involved in forming blood clots, and people with vitamin K deficiency are much more likely to suffer from bruising and bleeding, both external and internal. Early vitamin K-deficient bleeding (VKDB) occurs in the first week after birth. It is fairly common, about 1.7% of all babies experience it (or would if vitamin K injections weren’t SOP since 1961), usually in the form of bleeding under the skin or (more scarily) under the membrane that covers bones. The latter can result in disturbing lumps on the skull and terrified parents, but usually resolves itself fairly quickly. Much more serious, but much rarer, is late VKDB, which occurs between 2 and 12 weeks. This can result in serious internal bleeding into the gut and the brain. Brain bleeds can cause serious brain injuries or even death. Babies not given vitamin K suffer late VKDB at the rate of about 4.4 to 7.2 per 100,000 children, 20% of them die and half the remainder suffer long term problems. Before vitamin K treatment became routine, VKDB was an important cause of infant mortality.

Fortunately, both forms of VKDB can be virtually completely eliminated by a simple, single intramuscular vitamin K injection

Vitamin K being administered to a newborn

Vitamin K being administered to a newborn

within a few hours of birth. Vitamin K is a fat-soluble vitamin, and is retained in the babies muscle and slowly released for several months, long enough for the baby’s digestive system and internal organs to mature sufficiently to process vitamin K from food on their own. Oral vitamin K also works, but not quite as well, and requires daily or weekly doses of liquid vitamin K over several weeks or months, and it is difficult for harried parents to stick to the schedule. Oral vitamin K is standard treatment in some countries, but many of them are switching to (or switching back to) injections.

Increasingly, and frighteningly, more parents are refusing consent for their babies to receive the injection. This seems to be correlated with the anti-vax movement, though their objections are much more tenuous. Similar to the bogus autism-vaccine link espoused by Andrew Wakefield and others, there was a tiny, poorly done study (since thoroughly refuted) that claimed to link vitamin K to childhood leukemia. The anti-K movement lacks the prominent purveyors of nonsense that keeps the anti-vax movement alive. (Even Dr. Joeseph Mercola doesn’t believe vitamin K shots cause leukemia, but he does prefer oral doses, of course.) Clay will tell us, we hope, about other motivations parents have for refusing the vitamin K jab.

The problem of vitamin K rejection is receiving increased media attention. Chris Mooney wrote about it last summer in his Mother Jones blog, and Mooney and Indre Viskontas interviewed Clay about it on the Inquiring Minds podcast. (Interview starts about 6 minutes in.)

We will be meeting at 7PM on Monday, March 2, 2015 in the back room at The Burren, 247 Elm St. in Davis Square, Somerville. Please RSVP* on our Facebook event page. If enough people say they will attend in advance, the Burren will provide us with our own wait staff and/or bartender, which will avoid a crush of people trying to get food or drinks. Also, it might be a good idea to arrive a little early if you possibly can.

Hopefully, we won’t have yet another blizzard!

[*] Yes, I know “Please RSVP” is redundant.

SitP: Invisible Threat

Posted on : 25-01-2015 | By : John | In : Event, movie, Skeptics in the Pub

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Re-opening announcement

Grand Re-re-re-opening


Good News, everybody! We have a new home for Skeptics in the Pub. Our first event will be watching a DVD about the immune system, the threat of communicable diseases, how vaccines work, why some people choose not to vaccinate, and what the public health consequences of that choice are.

Invisible Threat is a 40-minute documentary made by a group of students at the Carlsbad High School in Southern California. Judging by the trailer and reviews (and the anti-vax reactions to it), it is very well done and informative. Their scientific technical adviser was Dr. Paul Offit, pediatrician and vaccine developer at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and author of several books about vaccines, alternative medicine.

Before the video was released, and unseen by its critics, the students making it received bullying and threats from the anti-vax and conspiracy theory communities. Some of the teachers and adult advisers wanted to pull out of the project, but fortunately for us, the students persevered. Still the intimidation continued and anti-vax propaganda was aired unchallenged on a Teach the Controversy report on local TV.

Following the film, we will have a discussion led by some members of our group with an interest in and knowledge of vaccines, communicable diseases and autism.

Our new location is The Burren, located at 247 Elm Street in Davis Square, Somerville. We will be meeting in the back room at 7PM on the first Monday of every month. If you want to familiarize yourself with the Burren, please come to our Getting Acquainted event on Monday January 26.

You can RSVP on Facebook. The Burren wants a preliminary estimate of attendance so they can decide whether to assign a bartender and/or wait staff to the back room for that night. It would make it easier, quicker and less disruptive for us to get food and drinks if they do, so please sign up ASAP if you are planning to attend. (But if you aren’t sure or don’t sign up, no worries. There is plenty of room, and we want to see you again.)

Summary:

  • When: February 2, 2015 at 7:00 PM
  • Where: The Burren, 247 Elm St, Davis Square, Somerville
  • What: Invisible Threat video and discussion

  • (The official starting time is 7PM, but if people arrive early, they can order dinner and/or drinks. The Burren said they could open up the room to us earlier than 7 if there is demand.)

    Book Club: “The Ghost Map” by Steven Johnson

    Posted on : 26-05-2013 | By : John | In : Blog Post, Book Club, local

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    Our next book is the story of a horrible Cholera outbreak in London, England in the late summer of 1854, The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic–and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steven Johnson. It tells the story of a deadly outbreak of cholera in the late summer of 1854, and how careful gathering of information and analysis of the data led to an understanding of its mode of transmission and effective public health measures to prevent it. The result was the creation of the science of epidemiology.

    The book focuses on two men. Dr. John Snow, who help found the Epidemiological Society of London 4 years previously, and was a pioneer in anesthesiology. Snow lived about 5 blocks from the epicenter of the epidemic. Rev. Henry Whitehead was the 28 year old assistant curate of the local C of E church. They both spent every available minute, independently, visiting the victims and gathering information about their circumstances, until the epidemic had run its course. Later, they were both appointed by the local health board to a committee to investigate the epidemic. Initially, they supported rival theories of the spread of cholera, but Whitehead was a nascent skeptic and eventually came to support Snow’s evidence and reasoning, which fit perfectly with his own disproving of the conventional theories of the day, principally the miasma theory of disease.

    Both Snow and Whitehead showed great courage and concern for the victims during the outbreak, although we now know they were actually in little real danger. Whitehead did drink some of the water, which many people thought was actually a cure for cholera, and drank in large quantities. Most likely by that time, the cholera in the well had all died since the well contained little of the plankton cholera normally thrives on in the wild, but no one knew that at the time. (The germ theory of disease lay about a decade in the future.)

    Snow had been gathering evidence to support his hypothesis that cholera was waterborne to explain earlier outbreaks when the 1854 Soho epidemic occurred. Snow’s map of the location of victims and his investigations, especially of the outlying cases, convinced him his theory was correct. The local council wasn’t convinced, rightly pointing out that it didn’t account for people who drank the suspect water but didn’t get sick. However, in a spirit of caution, they had the handle removed from the pump of the suspect Broad Street well, which while probably too late to stop the current outbreak, did prevent a second outbreak when the father of the first victim, patient zero, became one of the last people to die and almost certainly recontaminated the well. (The cesspool in the cellar of his house was only a few feet from the well.)

    Whitehead had been gathering evidence to disprove all the various versions of the conventional miasma theory, and rightly pointed out some logical gaps in Snow’s theory. Together, Snow and Whitehead gathered the needed data and, much to Whitehead’s surprise, made further maps that showed beyond any doubt that cholera was waterborne and the Broad Street well was the culprit. For example, they measured the actual walking distance between the homes or workplaces of the victims and all the nearby public wells, and showed that in almost every case, the Broad Street well was the closest. They also showed the distribution of the cases did not support other hypotheses, such as that the air near the ground or the social class of the victims or the newly built sewer system or the recently disturbed pit containing the remains of many of the 100,000 victims of the London Plague of 1665.

    The Kindle version of the book only contains one of the maps, in a very small, almost unreadable format. I don’t know if the print version is better. Anyway, a much bigger version of his original map is here.

    Steven Johnson has written 8 books on the history of science, technology and innovation.

    We will be meeting at our usual time and location, at 3:00 PM in Harvard’s Northwest Science Building, 52 Oxford Street, Cambridge, on Saturday, June 22. Remember to bring your appetite and, if you wish, a snack, preferably one made with boiled water. Also optional, you can RSVP on our Facebook event page.

    As always, Mary will be leading the discussion of the book the next day (June 23) at tbe Skepchick Book Club.

    SitP: Seth Mnookin

    Posted on : 01-12-2012 | By : John | In : Blog Post, Event, Skeptics in the Pub

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    Our speaker at the December Skeptics in the Pub is science writer Seth Mnookin, author of The Panic Virus:A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear as well as books about the Red Sox and journalistic ethics. He teaches science writing right down the river at MIT. Seth has been embedded in the front lines of the Vaxx Wars, and will share his experiences with us on Monday, Dec 10 at Tommy Doyle’s in Harvard Square, upstairs at 7 PM as usual.

    If, like me, you believe one of the most important things skeptics can do is combat pseudoscience in medicine, don’t miss this event. In The Panic Virus (see a review by our own Todd W.), Mnookin has thoroughly researched the modern vaccine/autism controversy and its history from Wakefield’s 1998 paper through his eventual disgrace and loss of his medical license. He has looked at the issue from all sides and reaches the conclusion that, like many manufactured scientific controversies, there aren’t two equally valid sides to every issue, as conventional journalist wisdom would hold, but one side with evidence, logic and science and another side with a mix of economic interests (the cynical purveyors of alternative, untested or disproven medical theories and practices) and wishful or magical thinking (the desperate people who turn to them for help and the enablers who truly believe they are fighting for the little guys against powerful vested interests.)

    In the end, the problems tackled by the book, like so much skeptical literature, also leads to a deeper understanding of why people believe false and ultimate harmful ideas:

    In The Panic Virus, Seth Mnookin draws on interviews with parents, public-health advocates, scientists, and anti-vaccine activists to tackle a fundamental question: How do we decide what the truth is? The fascinating answer helps explain everything from the persistence of conspiracy theories about 9/11 to the appeal of talk-show hosts who demand that President Obama “prove” he was born in America.

    This promises to be a fascinating and important discussion.

    See our Facebook event page for more information.

    Book Club: Rebecca Skloot’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”

    Posted on : 03-12-2011 | By : John | In : Book Club, Event

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    Henrietta and David Lacks, circa 1945.Our next book is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. It is the story of HeLa cells, the first immortal cell line which has been and continues to be used extensively in many fields, including cancer research, vaccine development and testing, AIDS, aging, genetics, and the effects of radiation on living cells. It is also the story of Henrietta Lacks, a poor African American woman raised as a share-cropper on a Virginia tobacco farm who died a horrible death from cancer at age 30 in 1951. It is also the story of her family who only found out about the source of the HeLa cell line many years later. (Informed consent was apparently never sought or obtained.)

    The book promises many topics for discussion, including medical history, cutting edge cancer and vaccine research, medical ethics and the exploitation of poor people for medical research, history of the underclasses in America, the importance of science education, and the current health care situation. (Many of Henrietta’s descendants can’t afford to receive the treatments derived from her cells, should they develop those diseases!)

    Skloot worked with the Lacks family, particularly with Henrietta’s daughter Deborah to obtain their side of the story and to help them in their personal search for answers.

    The book has received excellent reviews, both on-line and from friends, and I am looking forward to reading it.

    We will be meeting on Saturday, January 14, 2012 at 3 PM, most likely in the same conference room in the Northwest Science Building at Harvard that we have used recently.

    Skeptics in the Pub with Kimball Atwood and Mark Crislip

    Posted on : 03-10-2011 | By : John | In : Event, Skeptics in the Pub

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    Our next SitP features two special guests (Mark Crislip and Kimball Atwood of Science Based Medicine) at a special time (8 PM) on a special day (Wednesday, October 19 instead of our usual Monday evening), and in a special place (the cozy, intimate basement of Tommy Doyle’s.) Aren’t we special?

    Kimball and Mark will make a brief presentation followed by lots of hanging out and talking. For some ideas of the discussion topics, be sure to check out Mark’s podcast QuackCast and Kimball’s Naturowatch site, as well as SBM.

    (Be forewarned! Tommy Doyle’s basement doesn’t have the state-of-the-art multimedia recording facilities of their upstairs room, so this may be your only chance to see this dynamic duo. Don’t miss it!)

    No Really, Just Trust Us: Science Reporting & Citations

    Posted on : 25-08-2009 | By : Joshua | In : Blog Post, skepticism

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    Maybe I should cut Boston Globe some slack on this, since their entire science and medicine department got sacked due to budget cuts… except that every single newspaper makes exactly this mistake, including the Boston Globe when it still had a fully-staffed science department. Wait, shit, I’m burying the lede, aren’t I? Damn, maybe those journalists are good for something after all.

    You may have noticed that whenever you read a science article in a newspaper, even when they’re just quoting from a press release, journalists will almost never give the title of the study they’re talking about. If you’re lucky, they’ll give the lead author’s name or the name of the journal in which the study was published.

    I can kind of see how they might justify this. After all, most academic journals are subscription-only, so most newspaper readers wouldn’t be able to look up the article if they wanted to. But, even for the pay journals, usually an abstract is available online, as it is in the case of the New England Journal of Medicine article that the linked Boston Globe story references. However, failure to give citations is less about whether Joe Average has a subscription to NEJM and more about respecting the process of science. As Ben Goldacre writes here about the media’s propensity to treat science as “absolute truth statements from arbitrary authority figures in white coats, rather than clear descriptions of studies, and the reasons why people draw conclusions from them”.

    You can certainly see that at work in the Boston Globe article on vetebroplasty. The writer sets up a tired old “he said, she said” frame, pitting the arbitrary authority of “two recent studies” against the anecdotal wisdom of “many patients – and their doctors”. It’s as if the study authors just randomly decided (is that what they mean by a “randomised trial”?) one day that vertebroplasty is crap, the experience (read: anecdotes) of real-world doctors and patients be damned! Ivory tower! Arrogance!

    Of course, that’s not how it works. In reality, the authors of the vertebroplasty studies wanted to figure out whether this popular procedure has any effect, so they designed an experiment to figure it out. (I just picked one study I found in NEJM that was published this month. I have no idea whether it’s either of the studies Boston Globe is talking about, since they didn’t give the article titles, so I just have to assume it is. This is why the titles are fucking important to know.) As per the academic gold standard of the Randomised Controlled Trial, they collected volunteers to undergo either a sham surgery (the controlled part) or the real deal, selected at random (the random part). It’s unclear whether the surgeons were blinded, but that’s usually difficult to do with surgery.

    The results? “Improvements in pain and pain-related disability associated with osteoporotic compression fractures in patients treated with vertebroplasty were similar to the improvements in a control group.” This is something we typically see, a non-significant difference between the treatment and the placebo drug or sham procedure. The abstract even includes exact numbers, for those with the statistical knowledge to interpret them.

    An obvious criticism leaps out at me: the study has a sample size of 131, which is too small to be really conclusive. But note that this isn’t a criticism anybody makes in the Globe article. The Globe’s not interested in what the study actually says or what its actual flaws might be. It’s only interested in pitting authority versus authority, because that’s easy and doesn’t require any knowledge of the subject area or tedious investigation.

    But, hey, it’s not for us plebes to go questioning authorities like academic medical researchers or some doctors or newspaper writers. Just sit back, relax, and take their word for it.