Earlier this morning, the World Health Organization offered this tidbit of advice on their Twitter feed.
— WHO (@WHO) July 31, 2014
For the uninitiated, homeopathy is a philosophy of alternative medicine that states all illness can be treated by identifying the symptoms of a sufferer and offering them a diluted solution of a substance known to cause those exact same symptoms in larger doses. According to homeopathic theory, this works because the specific process of dilution a homeopath uses creates a solution in which the memory of the substance is retained, but not its physical presence. According to all known laws of physics, this doesn’t work because water is not a taped over videocassette. While there are many, many objections you could make about the viability of homeopathy, my personal favorite is the fact that a homeopathic remedy – at least if done “correctly” – contains exactly zero molecules of the original substance used to prepare it. It is literally just water.
The WHO’s warning comes amidst the world’s worst recorded outbreak of the novel hemorrhagic fever, having killed over 660 people across several countries in Africa. Despite its reputation as a potential world-ender, Ebola is really most devastating in the economic costs incurred by the already poor countries it visits. That’s not to say that the disease, with its high fatality rate of 50% to 90% and its ghasly presentation of intense vomiting, diarrhea and internal bleeding, isn’t absolutely frightening, but it’s pretty much the Jaws of the disease world, least judging by the bevy of unwarranted fears and myths that rear their ugly head when an Ebola outbreak receives public attention.
That’s why today’s message comes off as particularly frustrating to see. It’s obviously enough of a concern that the WHO felt the need to address the issue. And sure enough, throw a shallow stone into the internet and you’ll find homeopaths offering remedies for the deadly viral disease. For added insult, this particular homeopath bases their recommendation on distillations created for use against the 1918 flu. You don’t have to work for the CDC to figure out homeopathy didn’t do much back then either against the globe-spanning pandemic that wiped out 3-5% of the world’s population.
There are also homeopathic organizations scattered across Africa, whose websites are filled with photographs of beaming homeopaths offering modern snake oil cures and calling it medicine. One in particular presents its mission as “providing free holistic treatment for people living with HIV/ AIDS in Tanzania”. If you hear a sharp thud against the computer/tablet screen after that sentence, that’s just me pounding my fists in incredulous rage at the image of already disadvantaged people living with an incurable disease being treated with the equivalent of a cootie shot. While it’s bad enough that a homeopathic treatment is worthless in every sense of the word, it also delays if not outright dissuades legitimate medical aid from being provided to those who need it. This is especially horrific in developing countries with an already fragile healthcare infrastructure. In 2009, the WHO released a public statement condemning such practices in Africa, though apparently to little avail.
Clenched teeth aside, the WHO’s note of caution today emphasizes one of the most important reasons we need to combat scientific misinformation: Because the cost of a lie inevitably ends being paid by the people who can least afford it.
Anne: I’m a scientist. I like studying the world! And stuff.
That there might just be the most cogent definition of ‘scientist’ ever made, and it came from the mouth of a 11-year-old girl who builds giant robots androids in her spare time.
Someday, when the shores of Florida have retreated onto itself, New York is more levee than city and the heart of Africa is flooded, our grandchildren will come knocking at the drenched door and ask why.
Why, when faced with the knowledge of an impending yet preventable catastrophe, did we do nothing but squabble about its merits? Why did we stare into the face of oblivion only to stomp our feet and drown out its repeated warnings with cries of cost-effectiveness and socialist takeovers? Why did we, as journalist Nick Cohen put forlornly earlier this year, fail to shake humanity from its complacency? And I don’t know what I’ll be able to say to them.
Maybe I’ll point them to the financial records of energy corporations who spent millions every year to cultivate public doubt of the long established scientific consensus. Or the inane scribblings of designated climate skeptics who repeated the same debunked arguments until their ears filled up with sea water, and of the supposedly impartial publications that continuously allowed them writing space. I’ll tell them of an ideological movement fundamentally opposed to the idea of responsible, restrained capitalism and of those who sheepishly stood aside for them as they crafted policy, doled out billions in oil and gas subsidies and prevented regulatory action. These were all pieces of the puzzle, I’ll say. And though there existed plenty who were willing to fight for the future, they underestimated the tenacity of our collective passivity.
As my eyes welt up in a quiet anger at that last realization, I’ll plead with them to forgive us for what we did and didn’t do. And I’ll understand when they instead turn around and slam the door in my face. Someday.
Among global warming deniers, U.S. is number one: Poll (July 22nd)
Whistleblowing is not for the meek at heart.
There’s a gauntlet of mistrust and doubt that awaits the unlucky soul willing to illuminate the darker corners of an institution, politely and scholarly worded as they might be.
Our lifestyle choices can be deceiving in their independence.
A bagel here, a twenty minute jog there, there’s an existential comfort in believing the decisions we make to exist in a vacuum, free from unseen influence. Unfortunately, science is rarely considerate enough to offer us that same comfort. From open access journal and beloved light of my life PloS-One:
Physical inactivity, ambient air pollution and obesity are modifiable risk factors for non-communicable diseases, with the first accounting for 10% of premature deaths worldwide. Although community level interventions may target each simultaneously, research on the relationship between these risk factors is lacking.
Over the span of May to October 2012, anthropologist Lauren Renée Moore interviewed 37 residents of the university town Lawrence, Kansas.
Finding volunteers through various supermarkets, community events and restaurants, Moore was interested in documenting one of the fastest growing populations in the United States: the gluten-free.
This is a reprinted post from last year. As is, it’s honestly one of my favorite ones and the timing is perfect considering the subject. Though my thoughts have evolved slightly on the matter, it overall nails my present convictions and beliefs about nutrition and obesity. It’s especially relevant considering an upcoming writing/personal project I’ll be taking on next month…though that will have to wait until tomorrow to reveal.
The last week of February is a very important time to me. An anniversary of sorts, more significant than my birthday in March to be perfectly honest with you. The day, I don’t remember now, that I first started running.
In an article late yesterday, prominent Slate writer Amanda Marcotte asks us whether prosecuting a crime is worth forcing an alleged rape victim to testify against her alleged rapist by placing her in jail.
There ya go, not a hard question at all. No, we should probably draw the line at holding captive a 43-year-old woman believed to have been held captive by her alleged rapists and whose crime we’re supposedly seeking justice for.
But to be fair, so does the rest of the world.
Just this past Friday – presumingly because the government hates Valentine’s as much as every 20-something does – the National Science Federation released its 2014 report on the Science and Engineering indicators of the U.S. (alongside comparisons to other nations).
The hefty document, intended as a baseline measurement of how influential the science and technology fields are in the country’s infrastructure, pulls its data from hundreds of individual surveys and government reports and contains eight distinctive chapters. These chapters range from discussions about science education in our schools to estimates on the amount we spend on academic research annually; chapter seven in particular offers a prognosis of the average American’s understanding of and attitude towards basic scientific principles and findings. It’s…not great.
In honor of Darwin Day, I present to you an example of naturally evolved buffoonery.
Philosophers’ historic failure to anticipate Darwin is a severe indictment of philosophy. Happy Darwin Day!
— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) February 12, 2014
Leaving aside that the statement makes about as much logical sense as blaming ornithologists for not predicting the Goodyear Blimp…it’s also not at all true.
Not only did philosophers like Immanuel Kant, David Hume and Empedocles put forward and discuss various aspects of what came to be known as evolutionary theory, but Darwin himself was likely very influenced by Hume, his personal library chock full of his works. There’s even good speculation that he was reading Hume right around the time he began formally drafting his world-shaping treatise. For natural selection’s sake, Darwin’s grandfather was a philosopher – who wrote poems about evolutionary concepts!
Dawkins tries to save face later on by claiming that he obviously knew all that, he just meant that while many philosophers nailed down parts of evolution throughout the ages, none understood the whole picture quite like Darwin did; which I think is evidence Dawkins has no idea what the word anticipate actually means.
That all might seem a bit petty to poke fun at, but really, it’s gotten to the point where you can pretty much roll your eyes at anything Dawkins says that isn’t immediately related to biology, especially when it comes packaged with a bloated and presumptuous seal of authority as it so often does.
I…I don’t know. It’s just tiresome to take Dawkins seriously these days, probably because he’s so so good at doing it himself.