Skeptical reporter @ 2013-01-25

Skeptical Reporter for January 25th, 2013

In the Phillipines, cancer experts and the government warned the public against herbal supplements that are advertised as cures for cancer, saying these were “voodoo medicine.” The Philippine Society of Medical Oncology said these herbal supplements had no proven curative effects, while the Food and Drug Administration said it did not approve any herbal medicine or health supplement as a cure for cancer. “That’s what I call voodoo medicine. There is no viable alternative to mainstream cancer treatment”, explained Dr. Ellie May Villegas, PSMO vice president. Villegas said some of the supposed treatments that the public should be wary about included bio-resonance therapies, oxygen treatment, colonic cleansing, “megadosing” of Vitamin C, antineoplastons and immuno-augmentation treatment. She said herbal medicines might actually interfere with chemotherapy or medicines used in cancer treatment. “Some herbs cause problematic interactions with chemo, causing blood pressure swings and other complications,” Villegas added.

Sixty-three percent of registered voters in the U.S. buy into at least one political conspiracy theory, according to results from a recent Fairleigh Dickinson University Public Mind Poll. The nationwide survey of registered voters asked Americans to evaluate four different political conspiracy theories: 56 percent of Democrats and 75 percent of Republicans say that at least one is likely true. This includes 36 percent who think that President Obama is hiding information about his background and early life, 25 percent who think that the government knew about 9/11 in advance, and 19 percent who think the 2012 Presidential election was stolen. Generally, the more people know about current events, the less likely they are to believe in conspiracy theories – but not among Republicans, where more knowledge leads to greater belief in political conspiracies. The most popular of these conspiracy theories is the belief that President Obama is hiding important information about his background, which would include what’s often referred to as “birtherism.” “Groups that feel more distanced from the political process are more likely to believe that sinister forces are at work,” said Dan Cassino, a professor of political science at Fairleigh Dickinson University and an analyst for the poll. “These figures tell us more about a lack of trust in the political process than acceptance of particular conspiracies”, he added.

A minister in the state of Karnataka, home to the Indian infotech industry, has announced that the state government will set up a committee “to find out ways to eliminate black magic.” It is considering whether to require astrologers to register with the state authorities, apparently to sort out the legitimate fortune-tellers from the frauds.

Last month, during its 4th International Astrological Conference, the Karnataka Astrologers Association adopted a resolution to ban “dishonest astrologers in public sphere.” It was responding to predictions based on the Mayan calendar that spread fears the world would end on December 21st. The association’s vice president reportedly railed against “fake astrologers” out to make money peddling “mindless prophecies” for damaging “the reputation of astrology, which is traditionally viewed as a science”.

In Italy, the L'Aquila judge who last October sentenced seven scientists and engineers to 6 years in prison each for advice they gave ahead of a deadly 2009 earthquake explained his reasons for the manslaughter convictions. He said that the seven, at the time members of an official government body called the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks, had analyzed the risk of a major quake in a "superficial, approximate and generic" way and that they were willing participants in a "media operation" to reassure the public. The 950-page document judge Marco Billi has released, known as the "motivazione”, explains that the trial was not against science but against seven individuals who failed to carry out their duty as laid down by the law. The scientists were not convicted for failing to predict an earthquake, something Billi says was impossible to do, but for their complete failure to properly analyze, and to explain, the threat posed by the swarm. Billi ruled that this failure led to the deaths of 29 of the 309 people killed in the quake and to the injuries of four others.

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

House Resolution 41, introduced in the United States House of Representatives on January 22nd, would, if passed, express the House's support of designating February 12th as Darwin Day, and its recognition of "Charles Darwin as a worthy symbol on which to celebrate the achievements of reason, science, and the advancement of human knowledge". Rush Holt, one of the few members of Congress with a Ph.D. in a scientific field, is the sole sponsor of the bill. After its introduction, the resolution was referred to the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. Holt, in a press release from the American Humanist Association, commented, "Only very rarely in human history has someone uncovered a fundamentally new way of thinking about the world – an insight so revolutionary that it has made possible further creative and explanatory thinking. Without Charles Darwin, our modern understandings of biology, ecology, genetics, and medicine would be utterly impossible, and our comprehension of the world around us would be vastly poorer. By recognizing Darwin Day, we can honor the importance of scientific thinking in our lives, and we can celebrate one of our greatest thinkers”.

Cambridge University scientists say they have seen four-stranded DNA at work in human cells for the first time. The famous "molecule of life", which carries our genetic code, is more familiar to us as a double helix. But researchers tell the journal Nature Chemistry that the "quadruple helix" is also present in our cells, and in ways that might possibly relate to cancer. They suggest that control of the structures could provide novel ways to fight the disease. "The existence of these structures may be loaded when the cell has a certain genotype or a certain dysfunctional state," said Professor Shankar Balasubramanian from Cambridge's department of chemistry. "We need to prove that; but if that is the case, targeting them with synthetic molecules could be an interesting way of selectively targeting those cells that have this dysfunction," he explained.

Controversial research into making bird flu easier to spread in people is to resume after a year-long pause. Some argue the research is essential for understanding how viruses spread and could be used to prevent deadly pandemics killing millions of people. Research was stopped amid fierce debate including concerns about modified viruses escaping the laboratory or being used for terrorism. The moratorium gave authorities time to fully assess the safety of the studies. Now, a letter signed by 40 virus researchers around the world, published in the journals Science and Nature, said the moratorium was being lifted. It said appropriate conditions had been set in most of the world and their studies were "essential for pandemic preparedness”. One of the leading proponents of the research Professor Ron Fouchier, from the Erasmus Medical Centre, explained it had been "frustrating" to shut down research for the year. "This research is urgent, while we are having this pause bird flu virus continues to evolve in nature and we need to continue this research. We cannot wait for another year or two years", he added.

Scientists have given another eloquent demonstration of how DNA could be used to archive digital data. A team from the UK managed to encode a scholarly paper, a photo, Shakespeare's sonnets and a portion of Martin Luther King's I Have A Dream speech in artificially produced segments of the "life molecule". The information was then read back out with 100% accuracy. It is possible to store huge volumes of data in DNA for thousands of years, the researchers write in Nature magazine. They acknowledge that the costs involved in synthesizing the molecule in the lab make this type of information storage "breathtakingly expensive" at the moment, but argue that newer, faster technologies will soon make it much more affordable, especially for long-term archiving.

"One of the great properties of DNA is that you don't need any electricity to store it", explained team-member Dr Ewan Birney from the European Bioinformatics Institute at Hinxton, near Cambridge.

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

A Romanian is amongst the finalists for one of the greatest scientific competitions in The European Union. The stakes are very high: a grant of up to one billion euros for ten years, in a bid to maintain the European Union’s status as an innovator in science and tehnology. The competition for the grant started with 26 research proposals, but 20 of them have already been eliminated last year. Professor Adrian Ionescu, from the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne from Switzerland is the head reasearcher for one of the projects still in competition. The two winning projects will be announced on January 28th, by the European Commision.

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