And I didn’t even wish upon a star

I HAD a dream. One of those ones which are slightly alarming in that they come true. In my dream a friend happily announced she was pregnant and when I chanced to bump into her the next day, she told me – excitedly – the good news.

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Bomby: The creationists’ favourite beetle

A knockout blow for evolution turns out to be nothing of the sort

AS JBS Haldane famously said, God must have an inordinate fondness for beetles, he made so many of them. Of all the tens of thousands of the horny-winged horde, the creationists have chosen, as the absolute knockout anti-natural selection example, the bombardier beetle. Only the great Organic Chemist in the sky could have designed the chemical weapon system which enables this beetle to deal with ants and other predators.

The special feature is a sac containing a mixture of two chemicals, which do not react with each other spontaneously. When danger threatens the beetle is able to initiate changes in this mixture which cause it to be expelled explosively. The resulting missile is not only toxic and corrosive, but also, because of the heat generated by the reaction, it is boiling hot. Some species adopt a blunderbuss or scattergun method of discharging their weapon, others are even cleverer and can aim at their target like a marksman.

To understand why creationists have been so excited, and to follow the suggested evolutionary pathway leading to this phenomenon, we must look more closely at the chemistry of the process. The storage sac contains two substances, hydrogen peroxide and a relatively simple organic compound, quinol. The latter is oxidisable to quinone, but, although hydrogen peroxide is an oxidising agent, the two can coexist without reacting if left undisturbed. When danger threatens, the sac containing this mixture is emptied into a reaction chamber containing the enzymes catalase and peroxidase. The catalase decomposes the hydrogen peroxide almost instantaneously into water and oxygen, and the peroxidase causes it to react with the quinol, oxidising it to quinone. This in turn causes two things to happen; the heat released in this reaction raises the temperature to boiling point, and the sudden release of gaseous oxygen forces the liquid out with great force. In passing, we note that the creationists have the chemistry and sequence of the process wrong, but, as is their wont, they persevere in their error after being corrected.

Why have the creationists seized on this as a clincher for their belief? Well, it’s all so complicated, isn’t it? Quantities of two unusual chemicals, two enzymes, as well as the anatomical arrangements. Each is necessary, the system would not work if any one was missing. In modern creationist jargon, it is irreducibly complex. Therefore dear old Bomby must have been intelligently designed, mustn’t he? No. It ain’t necessarily so! A plausible sequence leading from a generalised arthropod to this specialised animal can be suggested. It nicely illustrates the way features with one function can be co-opted for other purposes, and demonstrates how small steps, each conferring a minute selective advantage, can lead eventually to large changes. We can note first that each of the four chemicals is not unusual, as claimed by creationists, but is a common constituent of arthropod metabolic systems. Quinone is made by numerous insects; it ‘tans’ the cuticle making the exoskeleton more or less rigid and dark in colour. Quinol may be synthesised by a similar route; it is not confined to bombardier beetles. Hydrogen peroxide is widespread in nature as a product of oxygen metabolism. Catalase and peroxidase are also found universally in the animal kingdom; oxygen, on which our life depends, is not an unmixed blessing, and these enzymes destroy dangerous by-products of oxygen metabolism (think anti-oxidants). Greater gene activity, leading to the biosynthesis of increasing amounts of these chemicals, seems an obvious pathway of natural selection. M Isaak (2003) has linked this process to the anatomical changes which would have taken place concurrently with the chemical developments. Each step in this scheme confers an obvious advantage and so would be selected for. Though the combination of features makes the bombardier beetle unique, individually they have counterparts in many other insects; for example, the secretory glands which produce the pheromones and other chemical signals. Isaak’s article discusses the issue in more detail, and is recommended (Isaak, M. Bombardier beetles and the Argument of Design www.talkorigins.org/faqs/bombadier).

This article was suggested by my reading The Bombardier Beetle’s Chemical Defence, by Marten J ten Hoor, Hoogezand, Netherlands, in CHEMNZ, no. 100. I am grateful to Mr ten Hoor and the editors of that journal for providing that stimulus.

Trans-Tasman fight against scams

THE Australasian Consumer Fraud Taskforce has launched a trans-Tasman campaign to inform consumers about the most common types of scams and how to recognise whether an offer is genuine or false. Consumer Affairs Minister Judith Tizard announced in March the Ministry of Consumer Affairs and the Commerce Commission were joining the Australasian Consumer Fraud Taskforce, along with 16 agencies from across Australia.

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Newsfront

Elephants in Loch Ness?

Nessie’s an elephant, says a leading British palaeontologist (Dominion Post, 7 March).

Neil Clark, curator of palaeontology at Glasgow University’s Hunterian Museum, spent two years investigating the Loch Ness myth and suggested the idea for Nessie was dreamt up as a “magnificent piece of marketing” by a circus impresario after he saw one of his elephants bathing in the loch.

In 1933, the same year as the first modern ‘sighting’ of Nessie, Bertram Mills offered £20,000 to anyone who could capture the monster for his circus, sparking international interest. Most sightings could be explained by floating logs or waves, but there were a number, particularly from 1933, were more difficult to account for.

He believed some were elephants belonging to circuses – which visited Inverness and stopped along the banks of the loch to allow their animals to rest. When they swam in the loch, only the trunk and two humps could be seen – the first hump being the head and the second the animal’s back.

University fears cancer from wireless internet…

Lakehead University, in Ontario, Canada, won’t allow campus-wide internet access because of health worries (Dominion Post, 1 March.)

President Fred Gilbert told a university meeting that some studies showed links to carcinogenic occurences in animals, including humans, related to energy fields associated with wireless hotspots – “whether these hotspots are transmissions lines, whether they’re outlets, plasma screens or microwave ovens that leak.” The university has only limited Wi-Fi connections, in places where there is no fibre-optic internet connection. The decision, apparently, was a personal decision by Gilbert.

The stance has caused a backlash from students and Canadian health authorities. “Considering this is a university known for its great use of technology it’s kind of bad that we can’t get Wi-Fi,” student union president Adam Krupper said.

…but cell phones are OK

Meanwhile, according to a new study, cell phones do not increase the risk of developing brain tumours, the Dominion Post reported (21 January.)

After a four-year survey, scientists at the Institute of Cancer Research in London and British universities in Leeds, Manchester and Nottingham found no link between regular, long-term use of cellphones and glioma brain tumours.

The results were consistent with the findings of most studies done in the US and Europe, although this survey was bigger than any previous research and involved 13 countries.

The researchers questioned 966 people with glioma and 1716 healthy volunteers about how long they had used mobile phones, the make and model, how many calls they made and how long the calls lasted. Earlier mobile phones used analogue signals, which emitted higher power signals than the later digital models. Any health danger would be more likely to result from the earlier models, but the scientists found no evidence of it.

Ghosts keep the tourists away

The existence of ghosts may be debated, but the impact of traditional Asian beliefs on Thailand’s tourism trade since the December 26, 2004, tsunami appears indisputable (National Geographic News, January 6).

Tourism from Europe, Australia, and the United States has rebounded since the disaster, but tourist arrivals from elsewhere in Asia have not. Industry observers cite Asian tourists’ fears of ghosts in tsunami-stricken areas as the main reason for the decline.

Buddhism and other Asian belief systems hold that if bodies are not properly buried, their spirits restlessly wander the Earth, and may try to drag living beings into a spiritual limbo.

“Please tell your fellow Japanese and Chinese back home to stop fearing ghosts and return to this region again,” Thailand’s Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra reportedly told tourists after a memorial service to commemorate the victims of the tsunami.

Since the disaster, tales of ghost sightings have become endemic. Foreign ghosts seem to be particularly common, and many of the accounts are being covered in local newspapers.

One Phuket taxi driver reportedly said he was hailed by four western tourists who asked to go to the airport. The driver chatted as he drove, but when he pulled up at the airport to let the passengers out there was no one there.

Police procedure allows for sorcery concerns

Maori should not be forced to give DNA samples because of concerns over sorcery, says a report in the Dominion Post (5 December 05). A new police manual says Maori have spiritual beliefs about samples taken from the body, and that “a person should not be forced to provide samples for testing purposes”. Police management said the direction would be amended or deleted in future editions.

‘John of God’: it’s all been seen before

Chair-entity Vicki Hyde is gnashing her teeth over the upcoming visit to New Zealand of Joao Teixeira de Faria, ‘one of the world’s most powerful spiritual healers.’

In a full-page feature on the ‘healer’ in the Dominion Post (28 January) Vicki told reporter Stefan Herrick she was convinced Teixeira de Faria, who goes by the name John of God, was a con man “who peddles miracle cures that don’t withstand even light scientific scrutiny.

“Sad to see this chap coming here as it just means more exploitation of vulnerable people.”

Hundreds of foreigners visit Abadiania, the small village in Brazil where Teixeira de Faria has established a clinic where ‘miraculous cures’ take place. He is promoted as “the greatest healer of the past 2000 years”, and claims to be guided by 35 healing spirits.

Vicki Hyde said if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, “it’s probably just another duck…”

John of God, the report said, doesn’t charge for visits to his clinic (although the Wellington sessions will cost $115) but he appeared to be well off. The ABC network reported that he owned a 400-hectare ranch down the road from his clinic.

Magnets attract support

Magnet therapy, said to be favoured by Cherie Blair, is to be made available on Britain’s National Health Service (NZ Herald, 11 March).

The 4UlcerCare – a strap containing four magnets that is wrapped around the leg – is available on prescription from GPs. Its maker, Magnopulse, claims that it speeds the healing of leg ulcers and keeps them from coming back.

The announcement has created excitement in the world of alternative medicine. Lilias Curtin, one-time therapist to Cherie Blair, sent a poster-sized announcement to newspapers declaring her “sincere belief that, in the next five to 10 years, magnets will be seen in first-aid boxes”.

Other experts are sceptical. Professor Edzard Ernst, head of complementary medicine at the University of Exeter, said that he was puzzled by the NHS decision. “As far as I can see, there hasn’t yet been enough research to prove that these magnets help people with ulcers.”

More powerful electromagnets could help to heal tissue injuries, but that was different, he said. His own study of small magnets on arthritis sufferers had failed to yield compelling results.

In January, researchers from the Kaiser Permanente Medical Center, in California, published a paper in the British Medical Journal that cast doubt on the therapeutic use of magnets. “Patients should be advised that magnet therapy has no proven benefits. If they insist on using a magnetic device, they could be advised to buy the cheapest – this will alleviate the pain in their wallet,” they wrote.

Snake Oil: a brief history of alternative medicine

Early in 2005 Professor Kaye Ibbertson, the relentless grand vizier of the Marion Davis Library and Museum, asked David Cole to offer the Medical Historical Society some comments about the history of unorthodox medicine. He was in the process of assembling several convincing excuses, when Ibbertson turned off his hearing aid and any excuses were set aside. This article is based on the talk which resulted.

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“Voodoo vets” create a stir

A website poking fun at veterinary homeopathy has become the unlikely symbol of a global backlash by conventional vets against their homeopathic colleagues, according to New Scientist magazine. The “British Veterinary Voodoo Society” (BVVS) is a parody, but its creators say they are making a serious point: that the claimed effectiveness of homeopathic veterinary medicine has no more solid scientific evidence behind it than voodoo. They object to a decision by the UK’s Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) to publish an official list of homeopathic vets, which they say undermines the credibility of conventional veterinary medicine.

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Skeptical Podcasts

Skepticality is a hugely entertaining podcast that explores rational thought, critical thinking, science and the de-bunking of the supernatural and pseudo-science. It features interviews with favourite skeptics such as James Randi and Tom Flynn, as well as scientists, such as Phil Plait and Michael Shermer. The podcast also features general discussion of all things sceptical with its two intelligent hosts Swoopy and Derek.

www.skepticality.com

Defrauding the dying


Mexican cancer clinics continue to do a roaring trade, despite their poor track record.

When civil rights leader Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, the world lost a voice for decency and truth. The death of his widow earlier this year, however, was attended by greed and lies. The family of Coretta Scott King rushed her to Hospital Santa Monica at Rosarito Beach, Mexico, on 26 January. She died five days later. The underlying cause of her death was ovarian cancer. King’s death in one of alternative medicine’s dodgiest facilities highlights a relationship between quacks and Mexicans that is evil.

Hospital Santa Monica is located near crashing surf, 25 kilometres south of San Diego. The climate there may be the best in the world, consistently pleasant. Cruise ships call at beach resorts along the coast, unloading passengers who like the sunshine and the cheap peso. The region also has about 20 alternative medical clinics for desperate patients, almost all from the United States. Coretta Scott King was barely alive when she arrived in Mexico, but like the tourists, she had money. She was one of perhaps 10,000 paying US citizens who check into some Mexican clinic every year. Mexican locals and authorities welcome money from both the tourists and the sick.

Sadly, Hospital Santa Monica and the dozens of similar facilities sell patients only false hope. Kurt W Donsbach founded the Rosarito Beach facility. “The major patient clientele is comprised of cancer patients who have been told that there is no more hope, all traditional therapies having failed,” he boasts on his website. Donsbach claims to use “wholistic” techniques to treat the “whole” person; body, mind and spirit. He repeats the usual twaddle favoured by quacks: about how orthodox doctors treat only symptoms, not the disease; about detoxing the body and boosting the immune system; about avoiding standard treatments because they make cancer worse. Hospital Santa Monica offers “a very eclectic approach,” he says, including ultraviolet blood purification, mag-ray lamps, hydrogen peroxide solutions dripped into veins, ozone gas blown into the colon, a microwave hyperthermia machine (with a rectal probe), induced hypoglycemia by administering insulin, shark cartilage, a Rife frequency generator machine (remember Liam Williams-Holloway?), magnet therapy and other nonsense. Deluded groups such as the so-called Cancer Control Society, based in Pasadena, California, run trips to such Mexican clinics, taking thousands of cancer patients there for useless treatment.

Donsbach fails to reveal on his website that he has a criminal record but no medical degree. Born in 1933, he graduated in 1957 from a chiropractic college in Oregon. By the late 1960s he was running a health-food store in California, selling supplements that he said treated cancer. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, he was repeatedly in legal trouble for practising medicine without a licence, selling unapproved drugs and related wrongs. In 1979 he founded a correspondence school – the nonaccredited Donsbach University – that awarded bogus degrees in nutrition, and he sold his own supplements. Officials in New York said the products were useless and sued him. Under pressure in the US, Donsbach started the Mexican clinic in 1983. In 1996 he pleaded guilty to charges of smuggling $250,000 worth of unapproved, adulterated or misbranded medicines from Mexico into the US. Sentenced to prison, he avoided serving time by plea bargaining. In other words, Kurt W Donsbach’s life has been devoted to a range of health-related scams.

The Mexican medical clinics are a blot on the page of human history, but they continue to exist because they attract money. Mexico is a very corrupt country, and bribes and fraud allow unconscionable activity to thrive there. Mexican officials claim they can investigate the facilities only if there are complaints, which are rare because the clinics usually treat non-Mexicans and do not advertise in Mexico. Sometimes clinics get shut down, but they re-open. A week after Coretta Scott King died, the Mexican government closed Hospital Santa Monica, saying it lacked authority to carry out some of its treatments and that several of its unconventional practices put patients at high risk. Patients from the US, Canada, Australia and Italy were at the facility when it was closed. Interviewed by the Los Angeles Times, Donsbach was shameless. He blamed the closure on the US medical establishment and predicted that his clinic would reopen soon: “The moment they close down a clinic, they open it up very quickly, the same place, same people.” Immoral quacks and their allies continue to fleece the dying.

A very merry unbirthday

“There are three hundred and sixty-four days when you might get un-birthday presents and only one for birthday presents, you know.”

A quotation is always a useful heading to an article, and one from ‘Alice’ always lends an air of paradox and profundity.

Christchurch Skeptics, and some fellow-travellers, met recently to celebrate TWO birthdays; Charles Darwin (12 February 1809) and the New Zealand Skeptics (NZCSICOP) (6 February 1986). As a gesture from youth to age our function was held closer to the twelfth than the sixth; on the evening of Saturday, 11 February (an UNbirthday?) at the Cotswold Hotel.

In addition to the usual aids to eating, the tables were lent a skeptical air with cards carrying Darwinian/Skeptical quotes selected by chair-entity Vicki Hyde and some pseudoscientific baubles made by myself. Large jugs of gin (homeopathic, 30C), irreducibly complex bacterial flagella for lashing evolutionists, magnifying glasses for seeking answers in Genesis, pyramids for sharpening razor blades and brains, and magnets to be carried in male trouser pockets (cheaper than viagra). The door between the Kitchen and the dining Tables became the K/T boundary, with dinosaurs on one side and chickens on the other. The toast “Charles Darwin” was proposed by our chair-entity, and the meal then began with (what else?) primordial soup. The dinner then proceeded on its usual course with much conviviality.

Despite the late hour, the after-dinner address by Denis Dutton held the gathering’s attention to the end. ‘Darwinian Aesthetics: what Evolution tells us about the Nature of Art’ described how some eminent and ardent evolutionists resisted the application of Darwin’s ideas to human behaviour and social structures, yet such an extension of evolutionary principles explains much about us. Four hundred generations of urban living have not obliterated eighty thousand generations as hunter gatherers, so people in all present day cultures find most pleasing the type of landscape in which our distant ancestors developed. Dr Dutton gave a number of other examples relating our ideas of beauty and ugliness to ancestral behaviours of selective advantage. Blame for the poor peacock’s caudal load lies firmly with the peahen; one example among many of sexual selection.

After a brief question and answer session, our chair-entity thanked the speaker and declared the Darwinday Dinner ended.

The success of the evening was due to the hard work of our Get-things-done Secretary. Thank you, Claire!