Skeptical Reporter @ 2012-10-19

Skeptical Reporter for October 19th, 2012

We begin this edition of the skeptical reporter with an announcement.

Merseyside Skeptics are giving the UK’s top psychics, including Sally Morgan, the opportunity to demonstrate they can talk to the dead. This is what Michael Marshall, vice president of the organization explained about the event: “If the mediums are right and the dead really can get in touch, it would have a profound effect on the way we understand our lives. Which is why it was so frustrating that Sally Morgan – the UK's most commercially successful psychic – refused to take part in a simple test of her abilities last year. Fortunately, not all psychics think there are better things to do than to validate their profession, which is why I'll be working once more with Professor Chris French and science writer Simon Singh to test the paranormal abilities of two professional psychics on Sunday, with the results to be announced on 31 October. This year we have widened our challenge to include the other top mediums currently touring the UK, formally inviting Colin Fry, Gordon Smith, T J Higgs and Derek Acorah. If any one of the top five touring psychics in the UK wishes to prove themselves once and for all, they'll be very welcome to participate in our test, which takes place at Goldsmiths, University of London”.

And now for some skeptical news

Some corporate disclosures are so delightful it's best to just let them speak for themselves. This week a Nevada-based company called Psychic Friends Network Inc. released a copy of its latest investor presentation as part of a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Psychic Friends Network, which used to advertise heavily using television infomercials starring singer Dionne Warwick, went bust in 1998 when its parent company at the time filed for bankruptcy. Now it's back. And it is promising to "leverage an iconic brand name using new technologies and social media to re-establish PFN as the industry leader for daily horoscopes and psychic advice". And the company is forecasting $64 million of net income for fiscal 2015. Then again, the first page of the presentation includes some important cautionary language. "Undue reliance should not be placed on the forward-looking statements," it says, "because PFN can give no assurance that they will prove to be correct".

Brazilian police fearing a mass suicide that was going to take place this week, intervened to rescue the children of a doomsday cult who had barricaded themselves inside a house to await "the end of the world". Authorities believed that the members were ready to kill themselves by drinking soup laced with poison after the group's leader, the "prophet" Luis Pereira dos Santos, convinced his followers that the Apocalypse was coming. Last month Santos convinced his 113 followers to leave their jobs, give away all their possessions, and take their children out of school. On Thursday evening, 50 military policemen forced their way into the home and removed 19 babies and children after they received "credible" information that the group had planned to kill themselves by drinking poison. Police say that during the operation, a "significant quantity" of rat poison was found at the residence. The children will be placed in care homes. Children's judge Maria Luiza de Moura issue the protection order that allowed the police to remove the children, and said: "We believe that a mass suicide or murder may happen using a soup ingested by cult members. The adults are free to act of their free and spontaneous will, but we have to make sure that nothing happens to the children”.

In a highly unusual move, Academics Review, an association with global membership including academics, researchers, teachers and authors who commit to peer review for the purpose of establishing sound science, criticized popular television celebrity dr. Mehmet Oz for his show on genetically modified crops and foods. This is what the organization explained: "An October 2012 airing of the Dr. Oz television program includes the use of graphic images alleging associations between specific health risks and foods from crops produced using agricultural biotechnology.  We the undersigned academics, scientists, researchers, health and related professionals find these claims and corresponding graphic representations to be highly misleading and irresponsible. Dr. Mehmet Oz has repeatedly allowed Jeffrey Smith, an activist with no scientific or medical background or other relevant credentials, to appear on his program and make claims that GMOs are somehow associated with human health and safety risks. As Dr. Oz  and his producers have been repeatedly informed: The safety of biotech-derived foods has been thoroughly addressed by the international scientific community through decades of peer reviewed, published research. We urge Dr. Oz to make an immediate public statement disavowing these misleading health claims promoted by his show, and we urge his program promoters, sponsors and distributors to reevaluate their continued involvement with this or any programs which promote such baseless and irresponsible health claims".

Unknown gunmen have killed a polio vaccinator in Pakistan's southwestern province of Baluchistan, highlighting resistance to the country's immunization campaign, officials say. The shooting happened in the provincial capital Quetta a day after a three-day campaign kicked off across the country. Baluchistan, which borders Afghanistan and Iran, is plagued by sectarian violence between the minority Shi'ite and majority Sunni community, as well as by Taliban attacks and a separatist insurgency. The Taliban have banned immunizations in some areas, condemning the campaign as a cover for espionage since a Pakistani doctor was jailed after helping the CIA track down al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden using a hepatitis vaccination program.

And now let’s look at some news in science.

Since public health officials began recommending in 2006 that young women be routinely vaccinated against HPV, many parents have hesitated over fears that doing so might give their children license to have sex. But research published in the journal Pediatrics may help ease those fears. Looking at a sample of nearly 1,400 girls, the researchers found no evidence that those who were vaccinated beginning around age 11 went on to engage in more sexual activity than girls who were not vaccinated. “We’re hopeful that once physicians see this, it will give them evidence that they can give to parents,” said Robert Bednarczyk, the lead author of the report. HPV, the most common sexually transmitted virus in the United States, can cause cancers of the cervix, anus and parts of the throat. Federal health officials began recommending in 2006 that girls be vaccinated as early as age 11 and last year made a similar recommendation for preadolescent boys. The idea is to immunize boys and girls before they become sexually active to maximize the vaccine’s protective effects. According to research, nearly a third of children 14 to 19 years old are infected with HPV.

After flying to an altitude of more than 39,000 meters in a helium-filled balloon, Felix Baumgartner completed a record breaking jump for the ages from the edge of space, exactly 65 years after Chuck Yeager first broke the sound barrier flying in an experimental rocket-powered airplane. Austria's Felix Baumgartner earned his place in the history books after overcoming concerns with the power for his visor heater that impaired his vision and nearly jeopardized the mission. Baumgartner reached an estimated speed of 1,342.8 km/h (Mach 1.24) jumping from the stratosphere, which when certified will make him the first man to break the speed of sound in freefall and set several other records while delivering valuable data for future space exploration. The 43-year-old Austrian skydiving expert also broke two other world records (highest freefall, highest manned balloon flight), leaving the one for the longest freefall to project mentor Col. Joe Kittinger. Baumgartner and his team spent five years training and preparing for the mission that is designed to improve our scientific understanding of how the body copes with the extreme conditions at the edge of space.

European astronomers have discovered a planet with about the mass of Earth orbiting a star in the Alpha Centauri system, the nearest to Earth. It is also the lightest exoplanet ever discovered around a star like the Sun. The planet was detected using the HARPS instrument on the 3.6-meter telescope at La Silla Observatory in Chile. Alpha Centauri is one of the brightest stars in the southern skies and is the nearest stellar system to our Solar System, only 4.3 light-years away. It is actually a triple star, a system consisting of two stars similar to the Sun orbiting close to each other, designated Alpha Centauri A and B, and a more distant and faint red component known as Proxima Centauri. Since the nineteenth century astronomers have speculated about planets orbiting these bodies, the closest possible abodes for life beyond the Solar System, but searches of increasing precision had revealed nothing. Until now. "Our observations extended over more than four years using the HARPS instrument and have revealed a tiny, but real, signal from a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri B every 3.2 days," says Xavier Dumusque, lead author of the paper on the discovery.

A European team of scientists has built the first atlas of white-matter micro-structure in the human brain. The project's final results have the potential to change the face of neuroscience and medicine over the coming decade. The work relied on groundbreaking MRI technology and was funded by the EU's future and emerging technologies program with a grant of 2.4 million Euros. The participants of the project, called CONNECT, were drawn from leading research centers in countries across Europe including Israel, United Kingdom, Germany, France, Denmark, Switzerland and Italy. The new atlas combines three-dimensional images from the MRI scans of 100 brains of volunteers. To achieve this, CONNECT developed advanced MRI methods providing unprecedented detail and accuracy. Currently, biomedical research teams around the world studying brain science rely on a brain atlas produced by painstaking and destructive histological methods on the brains of a few individuals who donated their bodies to science. The new atlas simulates the impossible process of painstakingly examining every square millimeter of brain tissue (of which there are around 100 million per brain) with a microscope, while leaving the brain intact. The key novelty in the atlas is the mapping of microscopic features (such as average cell size and packing density) within the white matter, which contains the neuronal fibers that transmit information around the living brain.

And, now, in local news from Romania, we learn that

A classification of institutions with research activities in the country revealed a startling situation: a lot of private universities came on lower positions than high-schools, environment agencies and factories. the list, put together by the scientists' association Ad Astra, looked at ISI Thompson scientific articles, that have an international importance and impact. In other words, high-school students learn from better trained teachers, that are more interested in quality research than some students in universities.

This was Miruna for the Skeptical Reporter. This show was recorded today, the 19th of October 2012. Thank you for listening.

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