Skeptical Reporter for November 16th, 2012

A Chinese senior health official has called on the European Union to impose fewer restrictions on imports of traditional Chinese medicine. Wang Guoqiang, vice-minister of Health, said that the EU should consider the character of Chinese culture and of TCM when making regulations on TCM imports. “Unlike Western medicines, which attach great importance to laboratory results, TCM practitioners can determine symptoms of illness by checking the pulse”, he explained. An EU directive, issued in March 2004 and implemented in May 2011, mandates that herbal medicines be barred from the EU market unless they are licensed by an EU member state. To gain authorization in the EU, herbal medicine makers must pay large sums for registration and collect documentation proving the product has a 30-year history of safe use, including 15 years in the EU.

In Ireland, a claim from TV3 that pregnancy is not “strictly considered to be a health issue” has been dismissed by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland as it upheld four complaints against the controversial Psychic Readings Live programme which the station broadcasts. While TV3 did admit that “the provision of psychic services is not an exact science” it robustly defended the programme in the face of a growing number of complaints which accused it of exploiting vulnerable people for commercial gain. Under the BAI’s code of conduct it is forbidden for psychic services to discuss health matters or to predict the future as a matter of fact. Another complaint centred on a presenter who told a woman she would be married in Asia in three years but before that she could expect her flat to burn down. She was told not to worry because her house insurance would cover it. The complaint said the presenter “cast fear into the caller’s heart” and that the broadcast “amounts to mental and financial exploitation of the vulnerable”. In response TV3 insisted the programme met all regulatory requirements and that it was clearly “identified as an entertainment service at all times”. The station also pointed out that the psychic had “clearly stated that the prediction (…) was being made in his opinion”. However the Compliance Committee upheld the complaint and concluded that “the broadcast as a whole conveyed the message that the service was more than an entertainment service.”

The most well-known brand that produces homeopathic pills, Boiron Laboratories, has released a study on the use of homeopathic treatment of migraine in children. According to the conclusions of the study, the homeopathic pills produced a significant decrease in the frequency, severity, and duration of migraine attacks and, consequently, reduced absenteeism from school. The study has immediately come under fire for being flawed, with Dr. Edzard Ernst, former Professor of Complementary Medicine at the University of Exeter, writing: “To put the result of the Boiron-researchers into the right context, we should perhaps remember that even the most outspoken promoters of homeopathy on the planet concluded from an evaluation of the evidence that homeopathy is ineffective as a treatment of migraine. Therefore it seems surprising to publish the opposite result on the basis of such flimsy evidence made to look impressive by its multi-national nature.  (…) Debunking flawed homeopathy studies is not what I aim for or spend my time on. Yet this study, I thought, does deserve a brief comment. Why? Because it has exemplary flaws, because it reflects on homeopathy as a  whole as well as on the journal it was published in (the top publication in this field), because it is Boiron-authored, because it produced an obviously misleading result, because it could lead many migraine-sufferers up the garden path (…).

A self-styled ‘guru’ has been sentenced to eight years in prison for cheating three generations of an aristocratic French family out of their fortune by making them believe they were under threat from a secret masonic plot. Thierry Tilly convinced 11 members of the De Vedrines family to barricade themselves into their turreted manor house, Château Martel near Monflanquin, a medieval village in south-west France. In what the court described as a “Machiavellian plot”, he tricked them into handing over up to €4.5 million, and eventually made the family flee to Oxford, persuading them he was a former secret services agent and there was a plot against their lives. The family members, aged 16 to 89, described being in his sway for around nine years until 2009. Tilly, 48, who met the family when he worked as an administrator at a school run by one of the De Vedrines sisters, was convicted of psychological abuse and deprivation of civil rights.

The Kansas State Board of Education heard a report that as many as one in five elementary teachers in Kansas and surrounding states are reporting science grades on student report cards, despite the fact that they don’t spend any time teaching the subject or testing pupils’ knowledge in it. George Griffith, superintendent of the Trego school district in western Kansas and a member of a Kansas committee helping craft new national science standards, said he conducted a survey of more than 900 elementary teachers in Kansas, Colorado, Missouri, Oklahoma and Nebraska. Griffith said teachers responding to the survey said they reported grades in science because there was a spot on the grade card for it. But the teachers felt so pressured to increase performance in the high-stakes reading and math tests that they have cut back or eliminated class time for science. Griffith said he has presented his findings to national organizations of science teachers, and he said few people are surprised to learn what he found.

And  now let’s look at some news in science

Vision researchers at Barrow Neurological Institute have made a groundbreaking discovery into the optimization of light sources to human vision. By tuning lighting devices to work more efficiently with the human brain, the researchers believe billions of dollars in energy costs could be saved. The study is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The paper is believed to be the first attempt to tune light-emitting devices to the optimal temporal dynamics of the human visual system. The discovery concerns the way humans perceive temporal modulations of light. For example, most light-emitting devices, such as light bulbs, video monitors and televisions, flicker. “We found a temporal sweet spot in visual perception that can be exploited to obtain significant savings by redesigning light emitting devices to flicker with optimal dynamics to activate visual system neurons in the human brain,” says Dr. Macknik, author on the study. The researchers estimate that if every light-emitting device in the U.S. — from light bulbs to cell phones — operated at optimal efficiency for the human visual system, it could result in billions of dollars of savings in electricity and power.

Researchers and patients look forward to the day when stem cells might be used to replace dying brain cells in Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative conditions. Scientists are currently able to make neurons and other brain cells from stem cells, but getting these neurons to properly function when transplanted to the host has proven to be more difficult. Now, researchers at Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute have found a way to stimulate stem cell-derived neurons to direct cognitive function after transplantation to an existing neural network. “We showed for the first time that embryonic stem cells that we’ve programmed to become neurons can integrate into existing brain circuits and fire patterns of electrical activity that are critical for consciousness and neural network activity”, said Stuart Lipton, senior author of the study. The transplanted human neurons not only conducted electrical impulses, they also roused neighboring neuronal networks into firing, at roughly the same rate they would in a normal, functioning brain.

By combining the power of NASA’s Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes and one of nature’s own natural “zoom lenses” in space, astronomers have set a new record for finding the most distant galaxy seen in the universe. The farthest galaxy appears as a diminutive blob that is only a tiny fraction of the size of our Milky Way galaxy. But it offers a peek back into a time when the universe was 3 percent of its present age of 13.7 billion years. The newly discovered galaxy was observed 420 million years after the Big Bang. Its light has traveled 13.3 billion years to reach Earth. This find is the latest discovery from a program that uses natural zoom lenses to reveal distant galaxies in the early universe. The Cluster Lensing And Supernova Survey with Hubble (CLASH), is using massive galaxy clusters as cosmic telescopes to magnify distant galaxies behind them. This effect is called gravitational lensing.

Cambridge scientists at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, near Geneva, have spotted one of the rarest particle decays ever seen in nature. The result is very damaging to new theories like the extremely popular Supersymmetry. Supersymmetry is called in to fill some of the gaps of the Standard Model in physics. Since it predicts new phenomena, the theory of Supersymmetry can be thoroughly tested at the LHC. A very good place to search is through the decay of a Bs particle (composed of a beauty quark and a strange anti-quark) into two muons (very heavy electrons). It is expected to be a very rare event but can be greatly enhanced be the presence of new physics. This decay has been observed for the first time by a team at the LHC beauty (LHCb) experiment. The observation is bang on the Standard Model prediction, but comes as very bad news for supporters of Supersymmetry. Indeed, new physics failed to show up where it had the best opportunity. “If new physics exists, then it is hiding very well behind the Standard Model” commented Cambridge physicist Dr Marc-Olivier Bettler, a member of the analysis team.

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

The country is facing a health crisis with a lot of cases of HIV infection. Health officials have expressed their concern at the large number of young people who are infected because they use combinations of herbs that can be purchased legally to get high. The Romanian authorities have repeatedly tried to warn the population on the risks of using such herbs as drugs, but many take the risk since they cannot be arrested for buying the products. Many have resorted to injecting the herbal mixtures therefore increasing the number of HIV infections.  The president for the National Union of Organizations for Persons Affected by HIV/AIDS, has declared that in the first six months of this year 31% of those diagnosed had been infected because they used injectable drugs. He added that the trend in the past two years has been for this number to increase.