Sunday Sensational Science

The Power of Pee

Yes, we were supposed to do Arizona botany, but there’s a Carnival on. We’ll save the lengthy discussion about flora for next Sunday, and instead, you can head over to Cujo’s place for a brief chat about urine:

The net effect of research efforts like these could be that someday, we will use what is now a waste product that must be disposed of as a source of vitally important commodities.

You’ll never see pee the same way again.


Sunday Sensational Science

Sunday Sensational Science

Science Books in Bed

Alas, I’ve fallen behind in my research work for the next in my Arizona Sensational Science series. Also, I decided I desperately needed to read a few more books on Arizona geology that I’d never heard of but now cannot write another post without. Such is the life of a bibliophile.

We’ll spend this Sunday perusing some sensational science books together. If you’re looking for a good read, I’ve got suggestions. Oh, my, do I ever.

If you’re an Oliver Sacks fan, or if you’re just fascinated by brains, you really must pick up Phantoms in the Brain. Dr. Ramachandran doesn’t just tell interesting neurological stories, he takes you on a journey of discovery through your brain. And he’ll make you think of consciousness in ways you never considered before. The whole thing’s an adventure on the order of the Odyssey.

No one describes the spirit of this book as well as Dr. Ramachandran himself:

I believe that being a medical scientist is not all that different from being a sleuth. In this book, I’ve attempted to share the sense of mystery that lies at the heart of all scientific pursuits and is especially characteristic of the forays we make in trying to understand our own minds. Each story begins with either an account of a patient displaying seemingly inexplicable symptoms or a broad question about human nature, such as why we laugh or why we are so prone to self-deception. We then go step by step through the same sequence of ideas that I followed in my own mind as I tried to tackle these cases. In some instances, as with phantom limbs, I can claim to have genuinely solved the mystery. In others – as in the chapter on God – the final answer remains elusive, even though we come tantalizingly close. But whether the case is solved or not, I hope to convey the spirit of intellectual adventure that accompanies this pursuit and makes neurology the most fascinating of all disciplines.

He does indeed.


As someone who would like to see Americans get a lot more science in their diets, I adored Consilience. Edward O. Wilson does not believe there is anywhere science can’t go:

The productions of science, other than medical breakthroughs and the sporadic thrills of space exploration, are thought marginal. What really matters to humanity, a primate species well adapted to Darwinian fundamentals in body and soul, are sex, family, work, security, personal expression, entertainment, and spiritual fulfillment – in no particular order. Most people believe, I am sure erroneously, that science has little to do with any of these preoccupations. They assume that the social sciences and humanities are independent of the natural sciences and more relevant endeavors. Who outside the technically possessed really needs to define a chromosome? Or understand chaos theory? Science, however, is not marginal. Like art, it is a universal possession of humanity, and scientific knowledge has become a vital part of our species’ repertory. It comprises what we know of the material world with reasonable certainty. If the natural sciences can be successfully united with the social sciences and humanities, the liberal arts in higher education will be revitalized. Even the attempt to accomplish that much is a worthwhile goal.

It surely is.

As for those who believe science is a cold, hard thing, well, they should be reading what Richard Dawkins has to say about it:


The feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable. It is a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver. It is truly one of the things that makes life worth living and it does so, if anything, more effectively if it convinces us that the time we have for living it is finite. My title is from Keats, who believed that Newton had destroyed all the poetry of the rainbow by reducing it to the prismatic colours. Keats could hardly have been more wrong, and my aim is to guide all who are tempted by a similar view towards the opposite conclusion. Science is, or ought to be, the inspiration for great poetry….

I think we should start handing this one out in creative writing classes. Actually, if there were two books I could give to every single person on earth, they would be Unweaving the Rainbow and Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World. I think we’d see a lot more people fall in love with science.

If I could add a third, it would probably be Carl Zimmer’s wonderful book on macroevolution, At the Water’s Edge. He’s a superb writer, and believe me when I say that macroevolution has never been so beautifully described. This whole book is a journey, there and back again:

We three animals [yellowtail snapper, dolphin and human] live in separate countries divided by a fatal boundary. Yet a dissection would show that we are not complete strangers. I volunteer as the human specimen: crack my ribs open an
d a pair of lungs hangs alongside my esophagus, and they match the pair inside the dolphin. The dolphin and I have giant brains wrinkled with neocortex. We keep the cores of our bodies around ninety-nine degrees. We both fed on mother’s milk. And while the dolphin maneuvers with what are called fins, they are actually not like those of the yellowtail. They are in fact camouflaged hands: take away the blubber and gristle and you find five fingers, wrist, elbow, and shoulder.
The similarities between humans and yellowtails are of a more basic sort – we both have skulls and spines, muscles and eyes; we burn oxygen and build our tissue with the hydrocarbons we eat. And some subtler clues reveal that we humans are not the perfect land creatures we might imagine ourselves to be. Look again inside my opened ribs: nestled between my lungs is my heart, and sprouting from it is an aorta that rises upward, sending smaller arteries off toward my head before hooking around and down toward my legs. An engineer presented with a beating heart might have come up with a more rational solution: build two arteries, one to supply blood above the heart, one below.

You’ll learn the reason why we’re so poorly laid out as Carl takes you on our evolutionary journey from sea to land and back again. Along the way, you’ll learn a lot more about evolution than you thought possible from such a slim volume dedicated mostly to whales. And if, like me, you despised Moby Dick, you might discover a reason to at least read the chapters on cetaceans…

We began with neuroscience, and with neuroscience we shall end. Carl Zimmer wrote the most informative, delightful, and just plain enthralling book on how neuroscience came to be that I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading: Soul Made Flesh. Imagine, if you will, the smells of Age of Enlightenment Oxford:

Every building in Oxford has an internal signature of smells: the incense burning in the churches once again, now that the Puritans have been routed and the monarchy restored; the roasted beans in the new coffeehouse on High Street; the foul reek of the prisons, where thieves, Quakers, and the various enemies of King Charles II languish together. But the strangest smells in all of Oxford can be found off the main thoroughfares, on Merton Street. Across the street from the gates of Merton College is a medieval two-story house known as Beam Hall. Its odors are almost unbearable: a reeking blend of turpentine and the warm, decaying flesh of dissected dogs and sheep, along with an aroma that none but a handful of people in Oxford – in the world, even – would recognize as that of a nobleman’s decapitated and freshly cracked open head. [snip] These men of Oxford ushered in a new age, one in which we still live – call it the Neurocentric Age – in which the brain is central not only to the body but to our conception of ourselves. The seventeenth century saw many scientific revolutions, but in some ways the revolution of the brain is its most shattering triumpth – and its most intimate. It created a new way of thinking about thinking and a new way of conceiving the soul.

It’s amazing how far we’ve come since Thomas Willis and the other members of the Oxford Circle pried open a nobleman’s head and began looking at the brain as more than just several pounds of ugly fat. This book takes you on a journey that lasted thousands of years. If you like traveling the history of science, it’s definitely a trip you’ve got to take.

So there you have it, a small selection of the science books that have shared my bed recently. I’d stay and chat some more, but I just got a shipment from Amazon. Gots to go read now.

Sunday Sensational Science

Sunday Sensational Science

Sunset Crater

The winter of 1064-65* wasn’t a particularly good one for the locals. There was the 6 mile fissure that opened and began pumping out lava. Then one end of the fissure started throwing scoria at them, collapsing the roofs of their pit houses under hot heaps of fresh cinders and ash. Then more lava flows filled in forested valleys. By the end of it, fields of corn lay buried, the landscape had undergone a fairly dramatic makeover, and the severely surprised Sinagua had discovered the art of basalt corn cobble making. They relocated to points less explosive nearby, where a beautiful new volcano formed a backdrop and gave a fertility boost to their fields.

These things happen when you live in the San Francisco Volcanic field.

Northern Arizona would be a flat, arid plateau if it wasn’t for the hot spot beneath it. For 6 million years, volcanoes have erupted here, steadily marching east. The field extends from Williams in the west to the banks of the Little Colorado River in the east, and from just below Flagstaff in the south nearly to Cameron in the north – an area of roughly 1,800 square miles. It contains the highest point in Arizona – 12,633′ Humphreys Peak – as well as the youngest volcano, Sunset Crater. If you’re looking for a particular type of volcano, chances are the San Francisco Volcanic Field has it, from lava domes to a stratovolcano to dozens of cinder cones of all shapes and sizes. With 600+ volcanoes to choose from, you can’t complain. And if you’re really lucky, you might get a chance to see a new volcano born, since the field’s still potentially active. Geologists think any future eruptions will be small enough to get a spectacular show without inconveniencing the locals too much.

Sunset Crater would have put on quite the show itself. The six mile long curtain of fire served as the opening act, and while it probably wasn’t quite as vigorous as many Hawaiian fissure eruptions, brilliant red lava shooting up from the ground is still an impressive sight. But that was merely the prelude. Activity along the fissure slowed quickly, becoming concentrated at the northern end, where the real show was starting. Explosions ejected fragments of lava high into the air; as those fragments cooled mid-air, the dissolved gasses within them exsolved and created dozens of vesticles, peppering the fragments with petrified bubbles. They rained down around the vent, piling into a cone. The heat, the smell, and the noise would have been overwhelming.

We have a good idea what the Sinagua saw. It would have been quite a bit like Paricutín’s birth:

Loud, isn’t it? One begins to understand why the Sinagua fed it corn: I imagine they were trying desperately to calm it down.

If they found a good vantage point on nearby mountains, they might have seen bits of the newly-birthed crater rafting away on lava flows. You can still see chunks of red oxidized agglutinate, pieces of the original cone, trapped in the Bonito flow. The explosions continued, filling Sunset Crater’s gaping wounds with fresh scoria, and leaving the volcano with smooth, unblemished flanks.

As the eruption waned, something wonderful happened. Fumaroles formed near the crater’s rim, venting hot gasses that oxidized the basalt scoria. The iron contained within basically rusted, painting the rim in gorgeous sunset colors. The fumaroles cemented the rim with silica, gypsum and iron oxide; as a finishing touch, they deposited sulfur compounds, opal, hematite, jarosite, and magnetite. Nature had created a masterpiece.

When all was said and done, the volcano topped out at 1000 feet in height, a mile in width, and contained a crater 400 feet deep, which itself hosts a 160 foot deep secondary crater. The local Sinagua might have considered it a decent consolation prize for getting volcanically evicted from their forested valley.

The visible interior of Sunset Crater is covered with a smooth coating of scoria, but we can get a look inside her if we head over to Red Mountain, many miles to the west. This is the eroded interior of a cinder cone. Steam and percolating water welded its layers of cinder and ash together with the same sorts of mineral oxides that cemented Sunset Crater, creating a volcanic material called tuff. We get this inside-look at the anatomy of a cinder cone because the entire western side of Red Mountain got itself rafted away by a lava flow, leaving an enormous ampitheater carved out of the cone. This time, there was wasn’t any explosive action to replace the missing bits.

Lava can do some pretty outrageous things. And thanks to Northern Arizona’s cool, dry climate, we can get a nearly unweathered view of its antics. Rain and snowmelt just sink right in without disturbing the surface of the flows too much. If it wasn’t for the lichens and hardy bushes peppering the flows, you’d think they’d just erupted last week.

Most of the flows around Sunset Crater are composed of a’a lava. There is a good reason why the Hawaiians call it a’a, which means, basically, “stony, rough lava.” It’s a stony, rough lava comprised of clinker, broken chunks of lava carried along the top by a dense, pasty core. As that hotter core oozes its way downslope, the clinker goes along for the ride, tumbling over the leading edge like a bunch of over-excited kids at a slow-motion water park. The tumbled chunks get buried as the flow ambles on. Thus, you get a sort of lava sandwich: clinker top and bottom, paste in the middle. Don’t bite into a fresh flow, though: it’s erupting at temperatures of 1000-1100 degrees C. That’s 1800-2000 degrees F. That’s bloody hot.

Back when I was a wee kiddie, our teachers showed us a video of an a’a flow filmed in Iceland. I’ll never forget the sound. As the clinker tumbles, it makes a cacophony like a monstrous china cabinet getting knocked over. This video from Hawaii demonstrates that nicely:

Is that, or is that not, simply awesome?

There are two ways a’a is formed from a basalt flow. One of them is when the basalt is high in gas bubbles and (relatively) low in temperature, thus high in viscosity. The other is when the strain rate of the flow is high – such as when it hits steep ground. Remember this, as it will factor in to the following discussion.

Sunset Crater’s lava flows weren’t limited to a’a. The Bonito flow began close to the western margin of the volcano as pahoehoe, a Hawaiian word meaning “smooth, unbroken lava.” It’s a far more liquid basalt that forms a beautiful, smooth surface, sculpted into undulating billows or ropy loops. It forms that way because of the way very fluid lava moves under a congealing surface crust. It’s hot stuff, 1100-1200 degrees C (2000-2100 degrees F), with a low gas bubble content.

Now, the interesting thing is this: pahoehoe can easily turn to a’a, depending on how the flow goes. If pahoehoe hits an uphill climb, it’ll cool down, slow down, and get all clinkered up. Same thing can happen as the flow cools further from its eruption site. Isn’t that neat?

You can get an idea of what something like that looks like from this video of pahoehoe and a’a flows merging:

Pahoehoe also means “good to walk” in Hawaiian. When I was a kid visiting the Crater, our field trip guide explained the name origins thusly: the Hawaiians, walking barefoot over flows, would try to tiptoe over the rough stuff, exclaiming: “Ah! Ah!” And then, when their feet hit the smooth, soothing surface, they’d sigh in relief: “Mmmm, pahoehoe!”

You’ll never forget the difference now, will you?

The Bonito flow turned from pahoehoe to a’a as it lost its gas on the trip out from the mountain. Big cracks formed in its surface from the frictional drag of the liquid lava below the cooler crust, and as that weak crust collapsed when lava drained away from beneath it. It’s the youngest and biggest of Sunset Crater’s two flows. It covers almost two square miles, and ranges from 100 feet deep in its center to less than 6 feet along the margins. It filled in a basin surrounded by older volcanoes. The other major flow, Kana’a, flowed down an old stream bed for several miles, and never got more than 1000 feet wide. Sunset Crater’s continued eruptions covered it in cinders, allowing a lot more vegetation to take root along its surface. Both flows, as well as the cinders, are alkai olivine basalt, which is composed of microscopic crystals of plagioclase, olivine and augite. The occasional big white chunk of stone embedded in the basalt is a xenolith, in this case formed when lava ripped a hunk of Kaibab limestone out of the underlying formations and took it along for the ride.

The Bonito lava flow is where you’ll see most of the interesting formations. For a crash course in lava, there’s nothing better than the trail that meanders through it. You can take an online field trip, but we’ll hit some of the high points here.

If you’ve never used “lava” and “toothpaste” in the same sentence before, that’s probably because you’ve never seen a squeeze-up. These form when gummy, partially-cooled lava squeezes its way through already-hardened cracks in the flow. It’s pretty much the consistency of toothpaste. A close inspection will show you the marks left as it scrapes by the solid stone around it.

The Bonito flow also contains lava tubes, formed when molten rock drained from its solidified surroundings. Those tubes are cold – basalt’s a terrible material for trapping heat. In colder, wetter Arizona days, the tubes used to contain ice full time. Now, they’re usually dry, but frigid. Alas, Bonito’s main tube collapsed some time ago, so you can’t go exploring it anymore. This is good news for the claustrophobic set, not such good news for the spelunkers among us.

You can console yourself with a hornito. Yes, I know most of you associate the word “hornito” with tequila, for good reason – Hornitos is an excellent brand. In this case, though, hornito means a small spatter cone formed on the surface of a basalt flow. It’s created when lava is forced up through the cooled surface. Hornitos are fed by the flow itself, rather than its own magma source as is the case with a regular spatter cone. They’re steep-sided heaps of splattered lava that splashed down and over the developing cone, welding itself as it goes. The lava’s still partially liquid when it falls, which is why it doesn’t form distinct cinders, although the principle’s roughly the same.

Watching one form is a fascinating experience:

Sunset Crater’s hornito used to be taller, but volcanoes aren’t all that good at welding, and people broke it down by sitting on it and taking away chunks. It’s still an impressive feature, though.

Just past the hornito, you’ll catch sight of something that looks like a mini-cinder cone. It’s a cinder dune. This gives you some idea of just how much material Sunset Crater ejected.

Sunset Crater is a geologists’ dream. There are few places in the continental United States where volcanism is so wonderfully demonstrated, without all the pesky plants in the way. And, just over the horizon, ancient oceans lie exposed, and prehistoric apartments look out over Painted Desert vistas.

But that’s a story for another Sunday Sensational Science. For now, I’ll just leave you with a portrait of Sunset Crater and her lava flows, and let you ponder the power of hot rock to create a work of art:

* Scientists are still bickering over the dates. The paleomagnetic guys think the dendrochronology guys are full of horse hockey, and the dendrochronology guys are busy arguing over whether the eruption or drought or beetles caused the slow tree growth that year. The dates used in this post were acquired from logs used in Wupatki’s roof, and they fit comfortably within the paleomagnetic dates, so we’re running with ’em.

All images except the map of the volcanic field are courtesy of yours truly and her traveling companion. Clicky for large, glorious versions.

Sunday Sensational Science

Sunday Sensational Science

Celestial Photography

Summer Milky Way above Yavapai Point Trail in Grand Canyon. Wally Pacholka/

Nothing chock-full of scientific facts this week, but plenty of beauty. Whilst I was on vacation, I came across the photography of Wally Pacholka in various visitors’ centers. What’s remarkable about his photography is that it isn’t contrived:

Pacholka said he employs simple techniques and does nothing extraordinary to get his shots. He uses a standard 50mm lens mounted on a tripod, and points a small flashlight on nearby desirable rocks and other land features he wants to stand out in the photo.

He allowed that his digital camera has a light-gathering power that is in some instances more than 50,000 times greater than a typical daylight camera setting. Pacholka runs his exposures anywhere from a few seconds to a minute. But he doesn’t consider himself a guru.

“This is something the average person could do, absolutely,” he said.

Well, if the average person was willing to hike remote trails in the dark and had an eye for the right moment, I suppose. And believe me when I say that hiking around Sunset Crater even in broad daylight is a perilous proposition. Jagged lava flows, slippery cinders, unexpected Ponderosa pine roots – the average person’s more likely to end up with a broken neck than a spectacular photo.

Sunset Crater Volcano – Milky Way & Jupiter. Wally Pacholka/

Images like these remind us just how gorgeous our universe is. We’re damned lucky to live on a planet where such vistas paint the night sky. And with a little wisdom in our lighting choices, we can protect those skies, allowing ordinary people to point an ordinary digital camera and capture some really astounding astronomy.

Gemini Twins – Orion – Sirius – Meteor over Windows Area. Wally Pacholka/

Both astronomy and photography take us to other worlds – one a little more literally than the other. I think this picture captures the other-worldly quality perfectly. Little hard to believe this was taken at the Valley of Fire on Earth, isn’t it?

Mars at Closest Point. Wally Pacholka/

And there are few things as other-worldly as a comet soaring over Joshua trees, which look a little alien to begin with:

Comet Hale Bopp over Joshua Tree. Wally Pacholka/

Wally’s work gave me a new appreciation for my home state, where cosmos and continent always seemed close enough to touch each other. The first two photos in this post will be gracing my home just as soon as I’ve identified a suitable wall. Next time you’re in a national park, have a look inside the visitor’s center – his work may be there, and you can take a little something special home with you. If you love sensational science, here’s a photographer who captures its essence perfectly.

Mauna Kea view of Milky Way from Northern Cross to Southern Cross Panorama. Wally Pacholka/

(All photos filched from Wally’s website, except the first one, which I pilfered from TWAN. You’ll find plenty of other sensational science photographers there, too.)
Sunday Sensational Science

Sunday Sensational Science

Overselling Ida: A Cautionary Tale

Brian Switek’s Brilliant Discovery

If you haven’t heard of Ida, the perfectly preserved Darwinius masillae, you’ve been living in a box. Plenty of information about this remarkable but not utterly revolutionary fossil shall follow. But first, I want to share an illustrative personal anecdote.

A couple of day ago, my coworker, whom I shall call C, asked me if I’d seen the doodle on Google. Indeed I had. And I’d had a brief moment of the warm fuzzies, because it was nice to see that cute little sketch of Ida there in place of the usual logo. Those warm fuzzies turned to the cold ohforfucksakes when C started babbling about her being a “missing link.”

This is a normally intelligent man. I rolled my eyes. “No, she’s not.”

“Yes, she is!”

I was in the midst of Brian Switek’s wonderful post on the hype, which will be highlighted below. I’d read several ScienceBlogs posts by then, dissecting the discovery, and I attempted to explain to C that while Ida was awesome, she wasn’t the missing link. Indeed, “missing link” is complete bullshit. His response was to inform me that he’d take the word of scientists published in a peer-reviewed journal over what bloggers said any day, and oh yes there are missing links! It didn’t matter to him that the peer-reviewed paper had major, major problems, that the whole process had been tainted by publicity stunts, or that the bloggers in question were scientists who know the peer-review process intimately. To him, that process is infallible. Therefore, Ida is the missing link.

So this edition of Sunday Sensational Science is dedicated to C, who reminds me that scientists must resist overhyping their finds in order to score History Channel documentaries, not all peer-reviewed science journals are created equal (although the public doesn’t know that), and that having a stable of scientists manning the blogs is a sovereign remedy against sensationalism. Now if we could just get the general public to realize that…

Let’s begin with missing links. As in, there are no “missing links”:

Again, the press are talking about “the missing link“. Let’s get one thing clear. There is no missing link. Rather, there are an indefinite number of missing branches. To have a missing link, you need to visualise evolution as a chain. If there’s a gap in the chain, then you have a missing link. But evolution, at least at the scale of animals and plants, is mostly a tree.

Keep that in mind as the History Channel, other press outlets, and hysterical creationists endlessly repeat the “missing link” crap. THERE IS NO MISSING LINK. Tattoo it on your hand if you have to.

Now. On to Ida.

Ida has been presented as a near-miraculous superfossil. Our first clue that there was something rotten in the state of Denmark probably should’ve been the email Brian Switek received:

Late last week I received a rather curious e-mail. It read;


Ground-Breaking Global Announcement

What: An international press conference to unveil a major historic scientific find. After two years of research a team of world-renowned scientists will announce their findings, which address a long-standing scientific puzzle.

The find is lauded as the most significant scientific discovery of recent times. History brings this momentous find to America and will follow with the premiere of a major television special on Monday, May 25 at 9 pm ET/PT chronicling the discovery and investigation.

Who: Mayor Michael Bloomberg; International team of scientists who researched the find; Abbe Raven, President and CEO, A&E Television Networks; Nancy Dubuc, Executive Vice President and General Manager, History; Ellen Futter, President, American Museum of Natural History

“The most significant scientific discovery of recent times”, eh? What could it be? Life on Mars? Time-travel? Teleportation? The Higgs Boson? A diet cola that doesn’t taste absolutely awful? Well, no. It’s all about a little primate from Germany.

When a paper is released in conjunction with a documentary, everybody should put their skeptic’s hats on and brace for the worst.

Brian engaged in a bit of prediction:

Consider, for example, the grand claims made about finds like Darwinius. It is being heavily promoted but scientists have not yet had a chance to see the fossil or read the paper describing it. When they get a call from a journalist or are asked their opinion on it, then, it can be difficult to discuss the find because they do not know the details. This can be harmful as it can not only lead to the spread of overblown assertions but it can also make us look foolish if these finds do not turn out to be all they were cracked up to be. This could especially be the case with Darwinius. Though heralded in documentaries and in the news as one of our direct ancestors, it is probably a very interesting lemur-like primate on a different evolutionary branch. I can only imagine the field day creationists are going to have if this is the case, and I am frustrated by the way mass media outlets manage to bungle genuinely interesting scientific discoveries.

He was so right.

The paper was published to a media frenzy. The drama got so bad that some science bloggers were forced to resort to emergency satire:

Yesterday, the entire world changed noticeably as the media, accompanied by some scientists, unveiled a stunning fossilised primate. The creature has been named Darwinius masillae, but also goes by Ida, the Link, the Chosen One and She Who Will Save Us All.

The new fossil is remarkably complete and well-preserved, although the media glossed over these facts in favour of the creature’s ability to cure swine flu. Ida was hailed as a “missing link” in human evolution, beautifully illustrating our transition from leaping about in trees to rampant mass-media sensationalism.

No one’s disputing that Ida’s a remarkable find. PZ sang her praises thusly:

What’s so cool about it?

Age. It’s 47 million years old. That’s interestingly old…it puts us deep into the primate family tree.

Preservation. This is an awesome fossil: it’s almost perfectly complete, with all the bones in place, preserved in its death posture. There is a halo of darkly stained material around it; this is a remnant of the flesh and fur that rotted in place, and allows us to see a rough outline of the body and make estimates of muscle size. Furthermore, the guts and stomach contents are preserved. Ida’s last meal was fruit and leaves, in case you wanted to know.

Life stage. Ida is a young juvenile, estimate to be right on the transition from requiring parental care to independent living. That means she has a mix of baby teeth and adult teeth — she’s a two-fer, giving us information about both.

Finds like Ida are extremely rare, and she’s justly being celebrated as an important find. But the overselling is, ironically, selling her short. It’s like promising someone a Ferrari and delivering them an Altima. That’s where buyer beware comes in handy, and Brian Switek’s done an excellent job kicking tires on this one:

Some researchers have long maintained that adapids are better candidates for the ancestors of anthropoids, with Philip Gingerich (one of the authors of the Darwinius paper) being a vocal proponent of this view. It is not terribly surprising, then, that the authors of the Darwinius paper posit that adapids are more closely related to anthropoids than tarsiers and omomyids, and they rely on two tactics to make their case.

The authors of the paper try to frame their hypothesis in a historical manner. They claim that adapids have been barred from a close anthropoid relationship on the basis of soft-tissue characteristics that do not fossilize. This would mean that the association between omomyids, tarsiers, and anthropoids would hang by a nose, but this is not true. As reviewed in popular books like Chris Beard’s The Hunt for the Dawn Monkey and technical volumes like Anthropoid Origins, the relationship between omomyids, tarsiers, and anthropoids is based upon a wide array of fossil and neontological data. I can’t imagine why the authors of the new paper would suggest otherwise unless they were trying to construct a false historiography in order to show their fossil in a better light.

This shoddy scholarship is matched by a weak attempt to show that Darwinius has more anthropoid-like traits than tarsiers or omomyids do. In order for the authors of the paper to make a convincing case they would have to undertake a careful, systematic analysis of the anatomy of Darwinius in comparison to other primates, yet they did not do this. Instead they combed the literature for 30 traits that might help ascertain the placement of Darwinius in the primate family tree and filled in whether each trait was present or absent in Ida’s skeleton.

That’s the post I was reading when C started spouting off about peer-review vs. bloggers. I sent him the link. Really, when you think about it, science bloggers engaging in research blogging are peer-reviewers. And then you have Carl Zimmer, one of our best science journalists, engaging in a little peer review of his own:

It finally got to the point where I found myself dispatching emails to two prominent primatologists–John Fleagle of SUNY Stony Brook and Chris Beard of the Carnegie Museum–to see what they thought.

Both researchers agreed that it was a lovely fossil, in terms of its exquisite preservation. “It’s really wonderful,” Fleagle said. It’s got bones, fur, and even its last meal in its stomach. Fleagle observed that it will be possible to learn many details about the biology of early primates from Darwinius, down to the stages by which it teeth erupted.


…I asked what Fleagle and Beard thought about the actual argument in the paper, which has to do with where humans, apes, and monkeys (known as anthropoids) fit in the primate family tree. Some of the co-authors on the new paper have argued in the past that an extinct group of primates called adapiforms gave rise to anthropoids. Others have favored a common ancestry with small primates known as tarsiers. (Laelaps has a nice history of the debate.) The authors of the new paper argue that Darwinius is an adapiform, but it also has traits that link it with anthropoids. So, according to them, it’s an early relative of our own anthropoid lineage.

Both Fleagle and Beard were not impressed with this argument. Fleagle observed that, ironically, most of the evidence presented in the paper is old news. Except for the ankle and a few other traits, most of the traits offered to link adapiforms to anthropoids “have been known for decades,” said Fleagle. It’s nice to have those traits all in one primate fossil, but they don’t advance the debate. Fleagle is intrigued by the anthropoid-like ankle of the fossil, but he also notes that it’s “roadkill,” flattened down to a 2-millimeter pancake. He wonders whether their interpretation of the ankle will hold up to scrutiny.

Beard has similar things to say via email.

I’ve been deluged today by journalists regarding this. It is a marketing campaign for the ages. The fossil is nice because it is so complete, but it is a rather vanilla-flavored adapiform that does not differ appreciably from other members of that well-known group of Eocene primates…

Beard was also puzzled that the authors did not compare Darwinius to an important early anthropoid fossil Beard found, known as Eosimias. In fact, he was underwhelmed by the entire comparison of Darwinius to other primates (a phylogenetic analysis):

The phylogenetic analysis is not very complete, and I would certainly interpret many of the characters they do cite very differently than they do. But one of the most shocking things of all about the technical paper is that they found room to cite 89 references, but there is not one mention of Eosimias to be found there. This is bizarre indeed. In a paper that purports to tell us something about anthropoid origins, the authors have conveniently ignored the single most significant fossil that has been published to date. Incomprehensible.

From all available evidence, it seems the authors of the paper were more interested in trimming facts to fit their theories than in good science, and a lot of that motivation probably came from their chance at fame and fortune. It’s a shame. Carl’s right: science is being held hostage:

So, to recap: it appears that both PLOS and Atlantic Productions did not give journalists any time to consult with outside experts before launching a major press conference with a huge blitz of media attention. In other words, science writers who were trying to do their job well and responsibly were actively hindered. Those who declared ridiculous things, such as claiming that human origins were now solved once and for all, were not.

This, my friends, is not the way to do science. PZ points out some of the many issues:

This is not helping. It is inflating a good discovery beyond all reason, and when the public hears the creationists declare that it’s one fossil of a monkey-like creature, and they’re right, it’s going to damage the credibility of science.

Seed Media has a bit of a scoop: they’ve got an interview with a PLoS One editor, a History Channel executive, and Jørn Hurum, the scientist behind all the promotion. It’s appalling. They’re bragging about how a “production company got in on the ground floor”. Shall we anticipate the brave new world when paleontologists have to beg for McDonald’s happy meal tie-ins to get funding?

Ida deserved better than this. She’s an amazing little creature, and she’s getting lost in hype. Thankfully, Brian Switek’s rescuing her from the frenzy, and helping her demonstrate what she has to teach us:

First, how do we know that Ida was a female? It all comes down to a missing penis bone, or baculum. Many, if not most, mammals have a penis bone, and in fact our species is one of the “oddballs” in that males of our species do not. Take a look at the restoration of the transitional pinniped, Puijila, that was announced a few weeks ago. See that long bone sticking out from in front of its pelvis? That’s a baculum, and the presence of such a bone indicates that this specimen of Puijila was a male.

While our species might not have a baculum, other primates do, including fossil ones. Darwinius lived alongside another kind of lemur-like adapid primate called Europolemur, and fossils from the same Messel shales show that male Europolemur had large baculums. Given their close evolutionary relationship between Europolemur and Darwinius it can be reasonably assumed that male Darwinius had baculums, too, but Ida’s skeleton does not have a penis bone. Is it possible that this specimen of Darwinius could have been, pardon the expression, dis-membered sometime after death and before fossilization? It is possible, but given the exceptional preservation of the fossil, including gut contents and a body outline created by bacteria, it is doubtful. The lack of a baculum attached to this fossil makes it highly probable that Ida was indeed a female.


Even though I have been critical of the way this entire “primate roll-out” has been handled, I have tried to stress how amazing a fossil Darwinius is. The sex and age of a fossil might seem like unimportant matters, but how often do we get such a clear window into the biology of an extinct species? Right now the public is still being deluged with the message that Ida is the “missing link”, but I hope that what Ida’s skeleton can actually tell us about how she lived and died receive greater attention as we continue to discuss her bones.

Scientists like Brian will ensure that Ida doesn’t get lost in the hubub. And maybe, just maybe, this is a precious teachable moment. Wouldn’t it be lovely Ida not only taught us about the evolution of primates, but helped the general public understand good science versus bad or biased science? She might even save us from PZ’s nightmare of McDonalds-sponsered paleontology.

That would make her a miracle indeed.

Sunday Sensational Science

Sunday Sensational Science

Celebrating Hubble

The Hubble Space Telescope’s been sending back spectacular images since April 1990. It’s coming to the end of its life – it’ll be replaced by the James Webb Space Telescope in 2014 if the best-laid plans o’ mice and men don’t gang aft agley – but that doesn’t mean NASA’s given up on upgrades. The Atlantis crew’s up in space as we speak, tweaking, replacing, and fixing up various bits to ensure HST continues to contribute astonishing images and amazing science for years to come.

Today’s Sunday Sensational Science is a salud to HST, and a gallery of the glorious images its provided us with these last 19 years.

Spacewalking. You think repairs on old equipment on land are tough, just try replacing parts that were never meant to be replaced while floating around in hostile space without gravity.

Cujo’s got a good description of what it’s like:

On Earth, when an electronics tech yanks a circuit board out of a computer, gravity is holding his feet to the floor, or his butt to the chair, and his muscles can counteract the force being applied to his hands in reaction to the force he’s applying to the board. In Earth orbit, there’s no gravity. To get an idea what that’s like, imagine you’re underwater in a pool that’s too deep to stand in. Push against the side of the pool with one hand. You’ll spin around, because the force is being applied to your hand, and your body in turn.

The astronauts on this mission deserve the title of supermechanics. Somebody give them capes. Underwear worn outside the clothes optional.

We all know HST’s awesome, but a good majority of us probably haven’t the faintest idea how it works. That’s why there’s websites like

Like any telescope, the HST has a long tube that is open at one end to let in light. It has mirrors to gather and bring the light to a focus where its “eyes” are located. The HST has several types of “eyes” in the form of various instruments. Just as insects can see ultraviolet light or we humans can see visible light, Hubble must also be able to see the various types of light raining down from the heavens.­

Specifically, Hubble is a Cassegrain reflector telescope. That just means that light enters the device through the opening and bounces off the primary mirror to a secondary mirror. The secondary mirror in turn reflects the light through a hole in the center of the primary mirror to a focal point behind the primary mirror. If you drew the path of the incoming light, it would like the letter “W,” except with three downward humps instead of two….

After you’ve gotten to know your Hubble anatomy, take a moment to appreciate the last sight of one of the instruments the crew of the Atlantis is replacing:

The Hubble community bids farewell to the soon-to-be decommissioned Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 (WFPC2) onboard the Hubble Space Telescope. In tribute to Hubble’s longest-running optical camera, a planetary nebula has been imaged as WFPC2’s final “pretty picture.”

This planetary nebula is known as Kohoutek 4-55 (or K 4-55). It is one of a series of planetary nebulae that were named after their discoverer, Czech astronomer Lubos Kohoutek. A planetary nebula contains the outer layers of a red giant star that were expelled into interstellar space when the star was in the late stages of its life. Ultraviolet radiation emitted from the remaining hot core of the star ionizes the ejected gas shells, causing them to glow.

In the specific case of K 4-55, a bright inner ring is surrounded by a bipolar structure. The entire system is then surrounded by a faint red halo, seen in the emission by nitrogen gas. This multi-shell structure is fairly uncommon in planetary nebulae.

This Hubble image was taken by WFPC2 on May 4, 2009. The colors represent the makeup of the various emission clouds in the nebula: red represents nitrogen, green represents hydrogen, and blue represents oxygen. K 4-55 is nearly 4,600 light-years away in the constellation Cygnus.

The WFPC2 instrument, which was installed in 1993 to replace the original Wide Field/Planetary Camera, will be removed to make room for Wide Field Camera 3 during the upcoming Hubble Servicing Mission.

During the camera’s amazing, nearly 16-year run, WFPC2 provided outstanding science and spectacular images of the cosmos. Some of its best-remembered images are of the Eagle Nebula pillars, Comet P/Shoemaker-Levy 9’s impacts on Jupiter’s atmosphere, and the 1995 Hubble Deep Field — the longest and deepest Hubble optical image of its time.


And Hubble’s mission won’t be over when the telescope stops peering into the far ends of the universe. As a recent discovery shows us, the data it’s gathered will provide new insights for long decades to come:

Well, if you place a coronagraph over a distant star, you can see a whole plethora of much fainter objects orbiting that star. Well, someone was going through some old photos from 1998, and look at what they found using a coronagraph on a dusty young star, HR 8799, where they discovered planets in 2008:

So not only could we have found this planet 10 years earlier than we actually did, but by going back to the old data, we can learn a whole lot about this planet’s orbit, and hence the mass of the star that it orbits. Is it not just outstanding that the Hubble Space Telescope, in addition to all the other things it does, functions as perhaps the most accurate stellar scale we’ve ever built?

How neat is this? We’ve got over 200 stars that have been imaged with a coronagraph by the Hubble Space Telescope, and now we can start looking for planets around them just by looking at the data we already have!

Hubble doesn’t just provide us science, but works of art. The following images are a great reminder that science, especially seen through the eyes of Hubble, is beautiful:

Sunday Sensational Science

Sunday Sensational Science

Woo Gets Whacked

In a world full of woo, who do we turn to? There’s a small army of bloggers out there whose mission, which they enthusiastically accept, is to seek out new and old forms of woo wherever they flare up, set the phasers on “obliterate,” and hit the snake-oil salesmen right between the eyes. They’re scientists, doctors, and hard-core skeptics.

They are the bane of all pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo artists.

And they are relentless.

They’re also delightfully snarky. Only part of the pleasure in a good debunking is the overwhelming onslaught of facts. These authors don’t stop there. They employ the devastating weapons of humor, disdain and sarcasm to leave their targets moaning on the ground.

No woo can withstand them.

The White Coat Underground
Reiki: still stupid after all these years

Here’s my problem with reiki—it’s bullshit, pure and simple.

“But how can you be so dismissive?,” a credulous reader might ask. My answer comes in two parts.

Absurdist ridiculousity

OK, so I made up that phrase—which is exactly what I have in common with the founder of reiki. In 1922 Mikao Usui (JSG) fasted on a mountaintop in Japan and “received” the revelation of reiki. In other words, he made it up.


Evidence—there isn’t any

Really, there isn’t. Every once in a while, I skim the literature to see what may be new regarding various cult medicine practices. There are dozens of pilot studies and case reports, which are basically useless, but most of the controlled trials have failed to show any benefit to reiki above that of placebo. (The pilot studies mostly evaluate the safety of reiki, which shouldn’t be in doubt given its inert nature.) For example, an article in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine (not exactly hostile ground for reiki) published a randomized controlled trial of reiki for fibromyalgia pain. The conclusions?

Neither Reiki nor touch improved the symptoms of fibromyalgia. Energy medicine modalities such as Reiki should be rigorously studied before being recommended to patients with chronic pain symptoms. (J Altern Complement Med. 2008 Nov;14(9):1115-22.)

If reiki is so damned promising, it shouldn’t be all that hard to measure an effect.

Respectful Insolence
A cancer quackery I had never heard of before?

Perusing the Skepchick blog the other day I saw a wonderful story related by Masala Skeptic about how a group of skeptics in Mississippi attended a talk by a cancer quack named Robert Dowling, who apparently claims that dental pathology is the cause for all cancer and sells a “cure” for breast cancer called Quantum Health Management and triumphed. This is how:

After the steaming piles of pseudoscience flew right and left, the skeptics in attendance asked our questions: what bacteria cause this? Why would doctors cover up a cure for cancer? What studies have you done? Where were they published? How long have you followed your patients? Are you a doctor? We asked far more questions than the rest of the audience combined, even though they outnumbered us six or seven times. I doubt that Randi, Dennis, Brad, Don and I were the only ones skeptical of his claims – but we were the only ones voicing that skepticism.

Dowling did not have our answers. After claiming to have published studies, after claiming a 100% cure rate, after calling himself a doctor, he said that he had the proof. And when we asked for it, we got dodgy answers, evasions, and even the confession that he was not in fact a doctor. Of course, he was only a few semesters away from a medical degree in the Caribbean.


After having seen the account of this lovely slapdown on Skepchick and Living Better Skeptically, I headed straight over to Robert Dowling’s website,, which forwarded me to The website claims to be something called the North Carolina Institute of Technology, and, boy, oh, boy, is there some pseudoscientific woo there!


First, there’s the usual claim for curing cancer “without chemotherapy, radiation, or radical surgery.” Then there’s the claim that “100% of participants” are now cancer-free. Then, of course, there’s the fake journal to publish the “results” of these “studies.”

Science-Based Medicine
Risks Associated With Complementary And Alternative Medicine (CAM): A Brief Overview

Having grown up on a dairy farm, I am one of the least likely people to object to the deification of yogurt. However, as a critical thinker, I cannot help but resist the idea (promoted by some health sites) that probiotics are a reasonable alternative to chemotherapy in the treatment of colon cancer. And there are many other equally unhelpful claims being made all the time. Fish oil for ALS anyone?

What amazes me about the “cherry yoga” camp (as my friend Bob Stern likes to call it), is that they aggressively market CAM as “harmless” and “natural.” They point to the warning labels and informed consents associated with science-based medicines as evidence that the alternative must be safer. In reality, many alternative practices are less effective, and can carr

y serious risks (usually undisclosed to the patient). For your interest, I’ve gathered some examples of risks associated with common alternative practices that have been described by the CDC and in the medical literature:

Colon cleansing: amebiasis, ruptured colon with pelvic abscesses, Fournier’s gangrene

Herbal supplements: fulminant hepatic failure, bladder cancer, arsenic poisoning, anticholinergic poisoning, lead poisoning, severe hemorrhage, hepatic failure.

Acupuncturebilateral pneumothoraces (collapsed lungs) leading to death, transmission of hepatitis C

Chiropractic ManipulationsVertebral artery dissection and stroke, pediatric subarachnoid hemorrhage, paralysis, and misdiagnosed meningitis

Homeopathy – offered for malaria prophylaxis. All 5 contracted malaria. Offered in lieu of standard of care treatment for melanoma (patient died), colloidal silver causes permanent skin disfigurement.

All CAM – can result in delay of effective care, thus worsening outcomes for cancer patients and others.

The Quackometer
A quickly bashed out manifesto, if I were to have such a thing

Last night, a friend who I have not seen for a little while, asked me an important question. She was well aware of my blogging activities as my blog rss feed pipes through delicious and then twitter and onto my facebook account, or something. Why my fascination with criticising alternative medicine? A difficult question – and after a few pints and the energy for a one word answer, I responded “sport”.

Fortunately, a journalism student asked me some interview questions that allowed me the indulgence of providing a little more depth to my reasoning. I repost them here for the record after bashing them out whilst also trying to cook a mushroom stroganoff. The strog was a success. I hope these answers are also digestible.

Is there any e

vidence that alternative medicines work?

That depends on which alternative medicine you mean and what condition you want it to work for. It also depends on what you mean by ‘work’. A complex question. What we do know is that most alternative medicines are essentially inert – they have no specific effects. Homeopathy uses medicines so dilute that no medicine remains. Reiki is just a form of faith healing. Acupuncture is just sticking pins in your body at arbitrary points. Reflexology is just a foot massage. Bach Remedies are just dilute brandy. Practitioners may claim specific effects due to ‘quantum theory’ or Chinese Meridians and Qi, but these are just pseudoscientific explanations with no basis of evidence or rationality. Some therapies may have specific effects such as chiropractic, but the evidence suggest that this is only effective for lower back pain and then pain killers may be just as good, and much cheaper. A few herbs have been shown to have specific effects, but patients have no way of telling if their herbs contain the right amount of active ingredient and are not contaminated with other compounds.

Do you think there is any merit in using alternative medicines and
therapies or is it more of a danger to health?

Even though specific effects may be non-existent, or at best unpredictable, alternative medicines may well give non-specific effects and these may indeed have positive effects. The use of alternative medicine may well give a sense of empowerment and control, lift the mood, reduce anxiety and make pain more bearable. Together, these effects tend to be clumped under ‘the Placebo Effect’. In itself, this is not harmful and it is clear to see why patients like to take alternative medicines. The dangers are wider though. Firstly, in order to gain a good placebo effect, you have to believe that the therapy will work. The therapist then has to be a liar or deluded about their own powers. Trust in medicine is pretty important and it can be argued that the mild benefits of placebo do not outweigh the loss of integrity in delivering a placebo. Also, placebo effects are not magic. They have effects concerning beliefs but do not generally alter the course of the illness. With serious illnesses, people taking alternative medicine may delay or avoid treatment with proven beneficial and necessary effects. Practitioners too fail to limit their claims to what can be expected from a placebo treatment as they often do not realise this is what they are doing. Therein lies the danger of alternative medicine.

Wandering in the Wilderness
The Seductive Powers of Woo

I’ve read in about a hundred new agey books on clearing out clutter (yes, including some on Feng Shui) that clutter traps us. That we need to let go of things if we are to move on. Obviously I
don’t buy into that kind of nonsense, but there is something to be said for the cathartic walk down memory lane that happens when you go through your stuff. I started the culling with the most obvious stuff… the shelves that I filled when I decided to begin making my own soap. Before you decide to send me a snark-o-gram, I decided to make my own soap because the detergent bars that I purchased at the grocery store made me wheeze and dried my skin.

Woo Purrs Into Your Ear: “Natural is Always Better”

The soap making led to a foray into the wonders of Aromatherapy and of course Herbal Medicine. Natural Care is an interesting subject, I read books by Worword about the effects of essential oils, read Rosemary Gladstar and her particular brand of nuttiness, and even picked up a book titled: “Magical Aromatherapy” at the suggestion of an instructor which truth be told was fairly disappointing although there are some very nice recipes for scented cleaning supplies. No magic, but the house smells lovely. One thing that I picked up that will remain on the shelf is “Culpepper’s Complete Herbal and English Physician” which is a great read just for glimpse into the beginnings of medicine, and folk medicine.

The Natural Care led me to look into Detoxing. Detoxing my life, environment and of course body. All nonsense. And nonsense which has not really changed in the years since I looked at this stuff. Blah, Blah, blocked chakras, blah, blah, blocked liver, blah, blah, evil conspiracy by chemical companies which are making us sick. It was interesting to read but didn’t make it past the pre-skeptic Bullshit Detector.

Next. the “Beauty Industry Conspiracies”. Books like “Don’t Go To The Cosmetic Counter Without Me” and “The Truth About Beauty” which “Offers a Blue Print” and is a “Paradigm Shift” and contains things like “Myth: Beauty Requires Will Power and Self-Discipline – Fact: Will Power and Self-Discipline are dead end roads”. Of course there is a conspiracy by cosmetic companies to keep the public ignorant about proven natural alternatives. Blah, Blah, Natural works best.

It is all very seductive, if I didn’t have a strong science background and the passion for reading and learning I could have easily been pulled into the land of the “Natural Cures”. There is something reassuring about the idea that a product can do no harm if it is ‘natural’. That horrible Kevin Trudeau has made several fortunes feeding off of the ignorance and distrust that people have of things that they do not understand. More importantly he has earned a special place in the Hell of Crap Coming Out of Your Mouth For Eternity by feeding off of human misery and fear.

Reality Growls: “If This Crap Worked – It Would Be Common Knowledge. Think of the Grant Money!”

Sunday Sensational Science

Sunday Sensational Science

Doctors in the Blogosphere

So, we have an outbreak of swine influenza in Mexico, a chronic infestation of “healers” who wow with woo, and loads of health misinformation everywhere we turn. It’s turning critical. Someone call a doctor-blogger!

In this edition of Sunday Science, we’ll be making the medical rounds. And don’t forget to refer us to your favorite physician in the comments.

Dr. PalMD, The White Coat Underground

A practicing physician in Detroit, MI, PalMD is many things: a delighted dad, a devoted doctor, and a relentless foe of woo. He’s become one of my favorite Science Bloggers. And if I lived in Detroit, he’d be my physician. Like the other bloggers I’m highlighting, he really knows his stuff. He’s also got a snarky sense of humor and isn’t afraid of the word “fuck.” If he’s accepting new patients, I think we’ll just have to make him the official doctor of En Tequila Es Verdad.

In this recent post, he takes down another woo pusher:

The other day, I wrote about the fake health experts at the Huffington Post. Prominent among them is “Dr” Patricia Fitzgerald. Now, we already talked about how writing a health piece in a major media outlet and using the title of “Dr” can be deceptive; the reader is likely to assume you are a medical doctor. In Fitzgerald’s case, she isn’t anything resembling a medical doctor, or even a health expert.

Like many of HuffPo’s so-called health experts, she’s selling something. While I’m all for capitalism, she presents herself as something she is not—a legitimate doctor. Let’s examine what she is and is not.

Patricia Fitzgerald is a licensed acupuncturist, certified clinical nutritionist, and a homeopath. She has a Master’s Degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine and a Doctorate in Homeopathic Medicine.

There are two types of “real” doctors licensed to practice medicine in the US: Medical Doctors (MDs), and Doctors of Osteopathy (DOs). Anyone else claiming to treat common medical conditions is often practicing unlicensed care, or is licensed in a limited way to provide some health-related services.

None of the qualifications listed make her an expert in immunology, infectious disease, toxicology—all topics she has addressed at HuffPo. I’ll have to take her on her word that she is Doctor of Homeopathy—most doctors would give a little more information, like what the hell this doctorate is and what institution and board granted it. This is pretty important given that homeopathy is seen as a fringe cult-like practice by anyone who understands science.

The Doctors Revere, Effect Measure

No bloggers do better work on pandemic disease and the CDC than the Reveres. They know their stuff, being senior public health officials and practitioners. They’re currently on top of the swine flu outbreak, so head on over there if you’ve got questions needing answers. The post I’m highlighting here discusses some of the most recent research on influenza:

Every day, it seems, we find out that what we thought we knew about flu isn’t the case. As one noted flu expert said to me once, “I knew much more about flu 20 years ago than I do now.” So it’s good to remember that we are also finding out a lot about flu that we never knew or even thought we knew. A case in point is an extremely important new paper in PLoS Medicine ( Khurana S, Suguitan AL Jr., Rivera Y, Simmons CP, Lanzavecchia A, et al.(2009) Antigenic Fingerprinting of H5N1 Avian Influenza Using Convalescent Sera and Monoclonal Antibodies Reveals Potential Vaccine and Diagnostic Targets. PLoS Med 6(4): e1000049; online as of last night). This work makes a major advance in the science of antibody response to avian influenza/H5N1 (“bird flu”). The advance has two aspects. One is the information the work generated. Even more important is the second part: opening up specific new questions for further research.

Unlike much H5N1 work, this isn’t based on experiments in mice, as important and fruitful as such work is and has been. Instead it examines the antibody response of victims of a 2004 bird flu outbreak in Vietnam. Of 18, 13 died. Blood samples were obtained from the survivors during their recoveries. These patients lived long enough to get a response from the part of their immune system that makes antibodies.

Orac, Respectful Insolence

Orac’s a surgeon and equally-gifted writer who’s expert in taking down anti-vaccine fanatics. I do believe we’re going to have to press-gang him on board the HMS Elitist Bastard one of these days. In the meantime, you can enjoy a break from the anti-vacciners with him, and beat up on the Brassagers instead:

This time around, it’s not just any woo. In fact, it’s woo that relates to my area of expertise. As you may recall, I do a lot of breast cancer surgery, and I run a lab the focus of whose research is breast cancer. And what woo it is! it’s a shame that it may now be off the market. Well, not really, and it’s not even clear to me that it is off the market. After all, you can still buy Airborne, even though the company was fined millions for making exaggerated and false advertising claims. I still occasionally see Enzyte “male enhancement” commercials even though the company that makes Enzyte was similarly fined big time and its CEO is facing a prison term. So, I’m not surprised that I’m still seeing the website for the Brassage pushing the same woo. What is the Brassage, you ask?

It’s serious, serious woo. Indeed, it claims to be able to “stimulate” lymphatic flow in the breasts and thereby–well, why don’t you take a guess what “stimulation” of lymphatic flow in the breasts will do, ignoring for the moment that a bra isn’t going to stimulate lymphatic flow in the breasts?

Dr. Steven Novella, Neurologica Blog

He teaches at Yale. That’s our first clue that he’s good. The proof, however, is in the writing, and Dr. Novella delivers the evidence. His blog covers all things woo, not to mention kneecapping creationists and teaching science. In this post, he sets the record straight on what studies show about homeopathy:

The Cochrane Collaboration, an organization dedicated to evidence-based medicine, has published a review of studies of homeopathic treatments for side effects of radiation therapy and chemotherapy for cancer. The results are unimpressive – consistent with the null-hypothesis that homeopathic remedies have no effect. And yet the review is being distorted to promote a very misleading bottom-line to the press – that homeopathic remedies have a role to play in cancer therapy.

One point has been made clear – the treatments under study are not for cancer itself, but for the side effects of standard cancer therapies: radiation and chemotherapy. However, the results are being presented as if they support the efficacy of homeopathic remedies, when they do not.

Other blogs of note.

Due to the lateness of the hour, the increasing length of this post, and the fact that I want to get back to drooling over Dr. Chase watching House, I’m alas out of time. But that doesn’t mean I’m out of medical blogs. All of them are well worth a read.

ERV: What you need to know about the cutting-edge of HIV research, ERV’s got, along with some of the best smackdowns in the blogosphere.

Neurotopia: What’s better than a neuroscience blog written by a guy called the Evil Monkey? Nothing. Start with this post.

DrugMonkey: Home of both DrugMonkey and PhysioProf. I don’t need to say any more, now, do I?

Science-Based Medicine: This site is a veritible cornucopia of doctors writing excellent posts on medicine. It’s even got a veternarian contributing. Pseudoscience, beware!

(Sorry, no pics this time – I’ll make it up to you next week.)

Sunday Sensational Science

Sunday Sensational Science

Starring Geology

It’s teevee week at the Hunter household, and it ain’t all about House, either. We’ve been indulging in some educational programming, too. There’s some good stuff out there which makes good supplemental viewing. In this edition of Sunday Sensational Science, I’ll introduce you to two of my favorite geology programs.

Television does one thing a book can’t: video. Reading about geology is quite a different experience from seeing it in action. While I always recommend books over boob tube, television helps bring that information roaring to life. Watching geology in action worldwide makes it easier to understand what the books explain. It also gives you plenty of ideas for further reading, introducing you to concepts and geologically fascinating places you haven’t encountered before. Some programs are better at it than others, of course, and among the best is Hot Rocks.

Iain Stewart, the adorable Scottish host, takes us all over the world digging into rocks, the way they’re formed, and the impact geologic activity has on civilization. His PhD in geology and his infectious enthusiasm, combined with breathtaking visuals, fascinating historical tidbits, and his propensity for using the nearest food items to illustrate geological concepts, make this show a can’t-miss. Think of him as a cross between James Burke and Carl Sagan, and you’ll have a good idea what he’s like.

Allow Iain to introduce himself:

I guess that even as a university academic, I was a frustrated TV host. As a former child actor, I dodged the precarious glare of the footlights, turning instead to academia on the grounds that lecturing was just performing, but with a steady income.


In 2003 I was the first geologist (and Scot!) to be invited to join the science team of the popular BBC2 program, Rough Science. Around the same time, my own geological research had been featured in two BBC Horizon specials — Helike: The Real Atlantis and Earthquake Storms.

My research is focused on a broad area of Earth hazards and natural disasters, specifically identifying major earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions that have occurred in the recent past (the last 10,000 years). I do most of my fieldwork in the Mediterranean region, and many of my studies are linked with those being done in geography, archaeology and ancient history.

Out of this mishmash emerged the idea of a series based on the geology of the ancient Mediterranean world. It would be a combination of rough travel, rough history and rough rocks. For me, the key element was making it as lively and accessible as possible — a geology series for those who didn’t know they liked geology!

It truly is.

Iain’s usual stomping grounds are the Mediterranean, but the show’s taken him to places like Japan and Indonesia as well. The photo above is a volcanic beach on Krakatoa, Indonesia, where Iain’s showing off the wonders of pumice as an ingredient for those rafts that bring hapless animals to repopulate a wasteland after eruptions. This episode also taught us a little something about nutmeg’s role in the discovery of America.

You’ll also learn about a supervolcano that may be responsible for a population bottleneck in the human population. Lake Toba in Indonesia erupted 75,000 years ago, leaving a crater over 60 miles long and 19 miles wide. Tambora’s eruption, the largest in recorded history, left the world without a summer in 1815 – and it was rather small compared to Toba. Toba left India buried six inches deep in ash, with the depth reaching 20 feet. India, for reference, is over 3,000 miles away. Daamn.

Hot Rocks is full of information like that, along with stunning visuals and easy-to-understand explanations of how geology works. It’s a holistic program, showing how geology is tied to everything from landscapes to art to food and politics. Alas, it’s not available on DVD yet, and no clips on YouTube, but it’s still airing on the Science Channel. And I’ve got a clip of Iain talking about global warming, and the day he realized that it’s a very, very real threat.

I can’t get you Hot Rocks on DVD, but I can get you Faces of Earth. For cheap. And it’s spectacular. From the formation of the Earth from interstellar dust particles to humankind’s reshaping of the planet, it travels a broad swath of geological history. I’ve only seen the first two episodes so far, but just those two were enough to convince me I must own it.

It’s all science, having been produced by the American Geological Institute and supported by the American Association of Petroleum Geologists. Don’t worry – it’s not an advert for Big Energy. In fact, if they meant it as an advertisement for more drilling, it’s probably going to do quite the opposite. Once you’ve experienced several hours of Earth’s geological majesty, you’re a little less inclined to destroy it.

The series uses some incredible CGI to illustrate how plate tectonics work. But the most fascinating aspect to me was watching geologists use things like sand on a table and a vat full of sugar
syrup to model geological processes. And CERN’s in there, too – bet you didn’t know they’re using seismic data monitoring to make music. Would you like to hear Mt. Etna in piano or guitar? The clip I’ve included below will show you what they’re up to.

They also show the dramatic birth of an ocean basin in Ethiopia’s Afar Depression. That crevice you see to the right appeared virtually overnight. The continents move apart on the order of a few centimeters per year, on average. What that average hides is the fact that sometimes that slow movement happens in the blink of an eye:

In September 2005, a series of fissures opened along the Afar Depression. Over about a week, the rift pulled apart by eight metres and dropped down by up to one metre. Local people told of a series of earthquakes and how ash darkened the air for three days. At the same time, satellites tracking the region showed that the surface about nearby volcanoes subsided by as much as three metres, as magma was injected along the fissure.

This process of ocean formation is normally hidden deep beneath the seas, but in Afar we can walk across the region as the Earth’s surface splits apart.

Utterly awesome stuff, my darlings. Geology on the teevee isn’t quite as fantastic as geology in the field, but seeing as how none of us are quite rich enough to jet all over the world exploring these dramatically interesting places, it’s good to know we can get there by flipping the channel. Geology becomes the star of the show in these programs. I think it’s going to be a hit.

Sunday Sensational Science

Sunday Sensational Science

Quack Medicine Kills in Africa

Most of you have probably already seen this, considering our Cephalopod Overlord highlighted it. But Ben Goldacre begged readers to steal this chapter, there might be a few of you who aren’t Pharyngulites, and it’s a matter of life and death.

I’ve added illustrations that link to sites with further information. And I’ll give you the moral of the story right up front: Quack Kills. Just Say No.

This is an extract from
BAD SCIENCE by Ben Goldacre
Published by Harper Perennial 2009.

You are free to copy it, paste it, bake it, reprint it, read it aloud, as long as you don’t change it – including this bit – so that people know that they can find more ideas for free at

The Doctor Will Sue You Now

This chapter did not appear in the original edition of this book, because for fifteen months leading up to September 2008 the vitamin-pill entrepreneur Matthias Rath was suing me personally, and the Guardian, for libel. This strategy brought only mixed success. For all that nutritionists may fantasise in public that any critic is somehow a pawn of big pharma, in private they would do well to remember that, like many my age who work in the public sector, I don’t own a flat. The Guardian generously paid for the lawyers, and in September 2008 Rath dropped his case, which had cost in excess of £500,000 to defend. Rath has paid £220,000 already, and the rest will hopefully follow. Nobody will ever repay me for the endless meetings, the time off work, or the days spent poring over tables filled with endlessly cross-referenced court documents.

On this last point there is, however, one small consolation, and I will spell it out as a cautionary tale: I now know more about Matthias Rath than almost any other person alive. My notes, references and witness statements, boxed up in the room where I am sitting right now, make a pile as tall as the man himself, and what I will write here is only a tiny fraction of the fuller story that is waiting to be told about him. This chapter, I should also mention, is available free online for anyone who wishes to see it.

Matthias Rath takes us rudely outside the contained, almost academic distance of this book. For the most part we’ve been interested in the intellectual and cultural consequences of bad science, the made-up facts in national newspapers, dubious academic practices in universities, some foolish pill-peddling, and so on. But what happens if we take these sleights of hand, these pill-marketing techniques, and transplant them out of our decadent Western context into a situation where things really matter?

In an ideal world this would be only a thought experiment. AIDS is the opposite of anecdote. Twenty-five million people have died from it already, three million in the last year alone, and 500,000 of those deaths were children. In South Africa it kills 300,000 people every year: that’s eight hundred people every day, or one every two minutes. This one country has 6.3 million people who are HIV positive, including 30 per cent of all pregnant women. There are 1.2 million AIDS orphans under the age of seventeen. Most chillingly of all, this disaster has appeared suddenly, and while we were watching: in 1990, just 1 per cent of adults in South Africa were HIV positive. Ten years
later, the figure had risen to 25 per cent.

It’s hard to mount an emotional response to raw numbers, but on one thing I think we would agree. If you were to walk into a situation with that much death, misery and disease, you would be very careful to make sure that you knew what you were talking about. For the reasons you are about to read, I suspect that Matthias Rath missed the mark.

This man, we should be clear, is our responsibility. Born and raised in Germany, Rath was the head of Cardiovascular Research at the Linus Pauling Institute in Palo Alto in California, and even then he had a tendency towards grand gestures, publishing a paper in the Journal of Orthomolecular Medicine in 1992 titled “A Unified Theory of Human Cardiovascular Disease Leading the Way to the Abolition of this Disease as a Cause for Human Mortality”. The unified theory was high-dose vitamins.

He first developed a power base from sales in Europe, selling his pills with tactics that will be very familiar to you from the rest of this book, albeit slightly more aggressive. In the UK, his adverts claimed that “90 per cent of patients receiving chemotherapy for cancer die within months of starting treatment”, and suggested that three million lives could be saved if cancer patients stopped being treated by conventional medicine. The pharmaceutical industry was deliberately letting people die for financial gain, he explained. Cancer treatments were “poisonous compounds” with “not even one effective treatment”.

The decision to embark on treatment for cancer can be the most difficult that an individual or a family will ever take, representing a close balance between well-documented benefits and equally well-documented side-effects. Adverts like these might play especially strongly on your conscience if your mother has just lost all her hair to chemotherapy, for example, in the hope of staying alive just long enough to see your son speak.

There was some limited regulatory response in Europe, but it was generally as weak as that faced by the other characters in this book. The Advertising Standards Authority criticised one of his adverts in the UK, but that is essentially all they are able to do. Rath was ordered by a Berlin court to stop claiming that his vitamins could cure cancer, or face a €250,000 fine.

But sales were strong, and Matthias Rath still has many supporters in Europe, as you will shortly see. He walked into South Africa with all the acclaim, self-confidence and wealth he had amassed as a successful vitamin-pill entrepreneur in Europe and America, and began to take out full-page adverts in newspapers.

˜The answer to the AIDS epidemic is here,” he proclaimed. Anti-retroviral drugs were poisonous, and a conspiracy to kill patients and make money. “Stop AIDS Genocide by the Drugs Cartel said one headline. “Why should South Africans continue to be poisoned with AZT? There is a natural answer to AIDS.” The answer came in the form of vitamin pills. “Multivitamin treat
ment is more effective than any toxic AIDS drug. Multivitamins cut the risk of developing AIDS in half.”

Rath’s company ran clinics reflecting these ideas, and in 2005 he decided to run a trial of his vitamins in a township near Cape Town called Khayelitsha, giving his own formulation, VitaCell, to people with advanced AIDS. In 2008 this trial was declared illegal by the Cape High Court of South Africa. Although Rath says that none of his participants had been on anti-retroviral drugs, some relatives have given statements saying that they were, and were actively told to stop using them.

Tragically,Matthias Rath had taken these ideas to exactly the right place. Thabo Mbeki, the President of South Africa at the time, was well known as an “AIDS dissident”, and to international horror, while people died at the rate of one every two minutes in his country, he gave credence and support to the claims of a small band of campaigners who variously claim that AIDS does not exist, that it is not caused by HIV, that anti-retroviral medication does more harm than good, and so on.

At various times during the peak of the AIDS epidemic in South Africa their government argued that HIV is not the cause of AIDS, and that anti-retroviral drugs are not useful for patients. They refused to roll out proper treatment programmes, they refused to accept free donations of drugs, and they refused to accept grant money from the Global Fund to buy drugs. One study estimates that if the South African national government had used anti-retroviral drugs for prevention and treatment at the same rate as the Western Cape province (which defied national policy on the issue), around 171,000 new HIV infections and 343,000 deaths could have been prevented between 1999 and 2007. Another study estimates that between 2000 and 2005 there were 330,000 unnecessary deaths, 2.2 million person years lost, and 35,000 babies unnecessarily born with HIV because of the failure to implement a cheap and simple mother-to-child-transmission prevention program. Between one and three doses of an ARV drug can reduce transmission dramatically. The cost is negligible. It was not available.

Interestingly, Matthias Rath’s colleague and employee, a South African barrister named Anthony Brink, takes the credit for introducing Thabo Mbeki to many of these ideas. Brink stumbled on the “AIDS dissident” material in the mid-1990s, and after much surfing and reading, became convinced that it must be right. In 1999 he wrote an article about AZT in a Johannesburg newspaper titled “a medicine from hell”. This led to a public exchange with a leading virologist. Brink contacted Mbeki, sending him copies of the debate, and was welcomed as an expert.

This is a chilling testament to the danger of elevating cranks by engaging with them. In his initial letter of motivation for employment to Matthias Rath, Brink described himself as “South Africa’s leading AIDS dissident, best known for my whistle-blowing exposé of the toxicity and inefficacy of AIDS drugs, and for my political activism in this regard, which caused President Mbeki and Health Minister Dr Tshabalala-Msimang to repudiate the drugs in 1999″.

In 2000, the now infamous International AIDS Conference took place in Durban. Mbeki’s presidential advisory panel beforehand was packed with “AIDS dissidents”, including Peter Duesberg and David Rasnick. On the first day, Rasnick suggested that all HIV testing should be banned on principle, and that South Africa should stop screening supplies of blood for HIV. “If I had the power to outlaw the HIV antibody test,” he said, “I would do it across the board.” When African physicians gave testimony about the drastic change AIDS had caused in their clinics and hospitals, Rasnick said he had not seen “any evidence” of an AIDS catastrophe. The media were not allowed in, but one reporter from the Village Voice was present. Peter Duesberg, he said, “gave a presentation so removed from African medical reality that it left several local doctors shaking their heads”. It wasn’t AIDS that was killing babies and children, said the dissidents: it was the anti-retroviral medication.

President Mbeki sent a letter to world leaders comparing the struggle of the “AIDS dissidents” to the struggle against apartheid. The Washington Post described the reaction at the White House: “So stunned were some officials by the letter’s tone and timing during final preparations for July’s conference in Durban that at least two of them, according to diplomatic sources, felt obliged to check whether it was genuine. Hundreds of delegates walked out of Mbeki’s address to the conference in disgust, but many more described themselves as dazed and confused. Over 5,000 researchers and activists around the world signed up to the Durban Declaration, a document that specifically addressed and repudiated the claims and concerns–at least the more moderate ones–of the “AIDS dissidents”. Specifically, it addressed the charge that people were simply dying of poverty:

The evidence that AIDS is caused by HIV-1 or HIV-2 is clearcut, exhaustive and unambiguous… As with any other chronic infection, various co-factors play a role in determining the risk of disease. Persons who are malnourished, who already suffer other infections or who are older, tend to be more susceptible to the rapid development of AIDS following HIV infection. However, none of these factors weaken the scientific evidence that HIV is the sole cause of AIDS… Mother-to-child transmission can be reduced by half or more by short courses of antiviral drugs … What works best in one country may not be appropriate in another. But to tackle the disease, everyone must first understand that HIV is the enemy. Research, not myths, will lead to the development of more effective and cheaper treatments.

It did them no good. Until 2003 the South African government refused, as a matter of principle, to roll out proper antiretroviral medication programmes, and even then the process was half-hearted. This madness was only overturned after a massive campaign by grassroots organisations such as the Treatment Action Campaign, but even after the ANC cabinet voted to allow medication to be given, there was still resistance. In mid-2005, at least 85 per cent of HIV-positive people who needed anti-retroviral drugs were still refused them. That’s around a million people.

This resistance, of course, went deeper than just one man; much of it came from Mbeki’s Health Minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang. An ardent critic of medical drugs for HIV, she would cheerfully go on television to talk up their dangers, talk down their benefits, and became irritable and evasive when asked how many patients were receiving effective treatment. She declared in 2005 that she would not be “pressured” into meeting the target of three million patients on anti-retroviral medication, that people had ignored the importance of nutrition, and that she would continue to warn patients of the sideeffects of anti-retrovirals, saying: “We have been vindicated in
this regard. We are what we eat.”

It’s an eerily familiar catchphrase. Tshabalala-Msimang has also gone on record to praise the work of Matthias Rath, and refused to investigate his activities. Most joyfully of all, s
he is a staunch advocate of the kind of weekend glossy-magazine-style nutritionism that will by now be very familiar to you. The remedies she advocates for AIDS are beetroot, garlic, lemons and African potatoes. A fairly typical quote, from the Health Minister in a country where eight hundred people die every day from AIDS, is this: “Raw garlic and a skin of the lemon–not only do they give you a beautiful face and skin but they also protect you from disease.” South Africa’s stand at the 2006 World AIDS Conference in Toronto was described by delegates as the “salad stall”. It consisted of some garlic, some beetroot, the African potato, and assorted other vegetables. Some boxes of anti-retroviral drugs were added later, but they were reportedly borrowed at the last minute from other conference delegates.

Alternative therapists like to suggest that their treatments and ideas have not been sufficiently researched. As you now know, this is often untrue, and in the case of the Health Minister’s favoured vegetables, research had indeed been done, with results that were far from promising. Interviewed on SABC about this, Tshabalala-Msimang gave the kind of responses you’d expect to hear at any North London dinner-party discussion of alternative therapies.

First she was asked about work from the University of Stellenbosch which suggested that her chosen plant, the African potato, might be actively dangerous for people on AIDS drugs. One study on African potato in HIV had to be terminated prematurely, because the patients who received the plant extract developed severe bone-marrow suppression and a drop in their CD4 cell count–which is a bad thing–after eight weeks. On top of this, when extract from the same vegetable was given to cats with Feline Immunodeficiency Virus, they succumbed to full-blown Feline AIDS faster than their non-treated controls. African potato does not look like a good bet.

Tshabalala-Msimang disagreed: the researchers should go back to the drawing board, and “investigate properly”. Why? Because HIV-positive people who used African potato had shown improvement, and they had said so themselves. If a person says he or she is feeling better, should this be disputed, she demanded to know, merely because it had not been proved scientifically? “When a person says she or he is feeling better, I must say ‘No, I don’t think you are feeling better’? I must rather go and do science on you’?” Asked whether there should be a scientific basis to her views, she replied: “Whose science?”

And there, perhaps, is a clue, if not exoneration. This is a continent that has been brutally exploited by the developed world, first by empire, and then by globalised capital. Conspiracy theories about AIDS and Western medicine are not entirely absurd in this context. The pharmaceutical industry has indeed been caught performing drug trials in Africa which would be impossible anywhere in the developed world. Many find it suspicious that black Africans seem to be the biggest victims of AIDS, and point to the biological warfare programmes set up by the apartheid governments; there have also been suspicions that the scientific discourse of HIV/AIDS might be a device, a Trojan horse for spreading even more exploitative Western political and economic agendas around a problem that is simply one of poverty.

And these are new countries, for which independence and self-rule are recent developments, which are struggling to find their commercial feet and true cultural identity after centuries of colonisation. Traditional medicine represents an important link with an autonomous past; besides which, anti-retroviral medications have been unnecessarily – offensively, absurdly – expensive, and until moves to challenge this became partially successful, many Africans were effectively denied access to medical treatment as a result.

It’s very easy for us to feel smug, and to forget that we all have our own strange cultural idiosyncrasies which prevent us from taking up sensible public-health programmes. For examples, we don’t even have to look as far as MMR. There is a good evidence base, for example, to show that needle-exchange programmes reduce the spread of HIV, but this strategy has been rejected time and again in favour of “Just say no.” Development charities funded by US Christian groups refuse to engage with birth control, and any suggestion of abortion, even in countries where being in control of your own fertility could mean the difference between success and failure in life, is met with a cold, pious stare. These impractical moral principles are so deeply entrenched that Pepfar, the US Presidential Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, has insisted that every recipient of international aid money must sign a declaration expressly promising not to have any involvement with sex workers.

We mustn’t appear insensitive to the Christian value system, but it seems to me that engaging sex workers is almost the cornerstone of any effective AIDS policy: commercial sex is frequently the “vector of transmission”, and sex workers a very high-risk population; but there are also more subtle issues at stake. If you secure the legal rights of prostitutes to be free from violence and discrimination, you empower them to demand universal condom use, and that way you can prevent HIV from being spread into the whole community. This is where science meets culture. But perhaps even to your own friends and neighbours, in whatever suburban idyll has become your home, the moral principle of abstinence from sex and drugs is more important than people dying of AIDS; and perhaps, then, they are no less irrational than Thabo Mbeki.

So this was the situation into which the vitamin-pill entrepreneur Matthias Rath inserted himself, prominently and expensively, with the wealth he had amassed from Europe and America, exploiting anti-colonial anxieties with no sense of irony, although he was a white man offering pills made in a factory abroad. His adverts and clinics were a tremendous success. He began to tout individual patients as evidence of the benefits that could come from vitamin pills – although in reality some of his most famous success stories have died of AIDS. When asked about the deaths of Rath’s star patients, Health Minister Tshabalala-Msimang replied: “It doesn’t necessarily mean that if I am taking antibiotics and I die, that I died of antibiotics.”

She is not alone: South Africa’s politicians have consistently refused to step in, Rath claims the support of the government, and its most senior figures have refused to distance themselves from his operations or to criticise his activities. Tshabalala-Msimang has gone on the record to state that the Rath Foundation “are not undermining the government’s position. If anything, they are supporting it.”

In 2005, exasperated by government inaction, a group of 199 leading medical practitioners in South Africa signed an open letter to the health authorities of the Western Cape, pleading for action on the Rath Foundation. “Our patients are being inundated with propaganda encouraging them to stop life-saving medicine,” it said. “Many of us have had experiences with HIV infected patients who have had their health compromised by stopping their anti-retrovirals due to the activities of this Foundation.” Rath’s adverts continue unabated. He even claime
d that his activities were endorsed by huge lists of sponsors and affiliates including the World Health Organization, UNICEF and UNAIDS. All have issued statements flatly denouncing his claims and activities. The man certainly has chutzpah.

His adverts are also rich with detailed scientific claims. It would be wrong of us to neglect the science in this story, so we should follow some through, specifically those which focused on a Harvard study in Tanzania. He described this research in full-page advertisements, some of which have appeared in the New York Times and the Herald Tribune. He refers to these paid adverts, I should mention, as if he had received flattering news coverage in the same papers. Anyway, this research showed that multivitamin supplements can be beneficial in a developing world population with AIDS: there’s no problem with that result, and there are plenty of reasons to think that vitamins might have some benefit for a sick and frequently malnourished population.

The researchers enrolled 1,078 HIV-positive pregnant women and randomly assigned them to have either a vitamin supplement or placebo. Notice once again, if you will, that this is another large, well-conducted, publicly funded trial of vitamins, conducted by mainstream scientists, contrary to the claims of nutritionists that such studies do not exist. The women were followed up for several years, and at the end of the study, 25 per cent of those on vitamins were severely ill or dead, compared with 31 per cent of those on placebo. There was also a statistically significant benefit in CD4 cell count (a measure of HIV activity) and viral loads. These results were in no sense dramatic – and they cannot be compared to the demonstrable life-saving benefits of anti-retrovirals – but they did show that improved diet, or cheap generic vitamin pills, could represent a simple and relatively inexpensive way to marginally delay the need to start HIV medication in some patients.

In the hands of Rath, this study became evidence that vitamin pills are superior to medication in the treatment of HIV/AIDS, that anti-retroviral therapies “severely damage all cells in the body–including white blood cells”, and worse, that they were “thereby not improving but rather worsening immune deficiencies and expanding the AIDS epidemic”. The researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health were so horrified that they put together a press release setting out their support for medication, and stating starkly, with unambiguous clarity, that Matthias Rath had misrepresented their findings.

To outsiders the story is baffling and terrifying. The United Nations has condemned Rath’s adverts as “wrong and misleading”. “This guy is killing people by luring them with unrecognised treatment without any scientific evidence,” said Eric Goemaere, head of Médecins sans Frontières SA, a man who pioneered anti-retroviral therapy in South Africa. Rath sued him.

It’s not just MSF who Rath has gone after: he has also brought time-consuming, expensive, stalled or failed cases against a professor of AIDS research, critics in the media and others.

But his most heinous campaign has been against the Treatment Action Campaign. For many years this has been the key organisation campaigning for access to anti-retroviral medication in South Africa, and it has been fighting a war on four fronts. Firstly, TAC campaigns against its own government, trying to compel it to roll out treatment programmes for the population. Secondly, it fights against the pharmaceutical industry, which claims that it needs to charge full price for its products in developing countries in order to pay for research and development of new drugs – although, as we shall see, out of its $550 billion global annual revenue, the pharmaceutical industry spends twice as much on promotion and admin as it does on research and development. Thirdly, it is a grassroots organisation, made up largely of black women from townships who do important prevention and treatment-literacy work on the ground, ensuring that people know what is available, and how to protect themselves. Lastly, it fights against people who promote the type of information peddled by Matthias Rath and his ilk.

Rath has taken it upon himself to launch a massive campaign against this group. He distributes advertising material against them, saying “Treatment Action Campaign medicines are killing you” and “Stop AIDS genocide by the drug cartel”, claiming–as you will guess by now–that there is an international conspiracy by pharmaceutical companies intent on prolonging the AIDS crisis in the interests of their own profits by giving medication that makes people worse. TAC must be a part of this, goes the reasoning, because it criticises Matthias Rath. Just like me writing on Patrick Holford or Gillian McKeith, TAC is perfectly in favour of good diet and nutrition. But in Rath’s promotional literature it is a front for the pharmaceutical industry, a “Trojan horse” and a “running dog”. TAC has made a full disclosure of its funding and activities, showing no such connection: Rath presented no evidence to the contrary, and has even lost a court case over the issue, but will not let it lie. In fact he presents the loss of this court case as if it was a victory.

The founder of TAC is a man called Zackie Achmat, and he is the closest thing I have to a hero. He is South African, and coloured, by the nomenclature of the apartheid system in which he grew up. At the age of fourteen he tried to burn down his school, and you might have done the same in similar circumstances. He has been arrested and imprisoned under South Africa’s violent, brutal white regime, with all that entailed. He is also gay, and HIV-positive, and he refused to take anti-retroviral medication until it was widely available to all on the public health system, even when he was dying of AIDS, even when he was personally implored to save himself by Nelson Mandela, a public supporter of anti-retroviral medication and Achmat’s work.

And now, at last, we come to the lowest point of this whole story, not merely for Matthias Rath’s movement, but for the alternative therapy movement around the world as a whole. In 2007, with a huge public flourish, to great media coverage, Rath’s former employee Anthony Brink filed a formal complaint against Zackie Achmat, the head of the TAC. Bizarrely, he filed this complaint with the International Criminal
Court at The Hague, accusing Achmat of genocide for successfully campaigning to get access to HIV drugs for the people of South Africa.

It’s hard to explain just how influential the “AIDS dissidents” are in South Africa. Brink is a barrister, a man with important friends, and his accusations were reported in the national news media –and in some corners of the Western gay press–as a serious news story. I do not believe that any one of those journalists who reported on it can possibly have read Brink’s indictment to the end.

I have.

The first fifty-seven pages present familiar anti-medication and “AIDS-dissident” material. But then, on page fifty-eight, this “indictment” document suddenly deteriorates into something altogether more vicious and unhinged, as Brink sets out what he believes would be an appropriate punishment for Zackie. Because I do not wish to be accused of selective editing, I will now reproduce for you that entire section, unedited, so you can see and feel it for yourself.



The document was described by the Rath Foundation as “entirely valid and long overdue”.

This story isn’t about Matthias Rath, or Anthony Brink, or Zackie Achmat, or even South Africa. It is about the culture of how ideas work, and how that can break down. Doctors criticise other doctors, academics criticise academics, politicians criticise politicians: that’s normal and healthy, it’s how ideas improve. Matthias Rath is an alternative therapist, made in Europe. He is every bit the same as the British operators that we have seen in this book. He is from their world.

Despite the extremes of this case, not one single alternative therapist or nutritionist, anywhere in the world, has stood up to criticise any single aspect of the activities of Matthias Rath and his colleagues. In fact, far from it: he continues to be fêted to this day. I have sat in true astonishment and watched leading figures of the UK’s alternative therapy movement applaud Matthias Rath at a public lecture (I have it on video, just in case there’s any doubt). Natural health organisations continue to defend Rath. Homeopaths’ mailouts continue to promote his work. The British Association of Nutritional Therapists has been invited to comment by bloggers, but declined. Most, when challenged, will dissemble.”Oh,” they say, “I don’t really know much about it.” Not one person will step forward and dissent.

The alternative therapy movement as a whole has demonstrated itself to be so dangerously, systemically incapable of critical self-appraisal that it cannot step up even in a case like that of Rath: in that count I include tens of thousands of practitioners, writers, administrators and more. This is how ideas go badly wrong. In the conclusion to this book, written before I was able to include this chapter, I will argue that the biggest dangers posed by the material we have covered are cultural and intellectual.

I may be mistaken.

Sunday Sensational Science