Skeptical reporter @ 2013-02-01

Skeptical Reporter for February 1st, 2013

Until a few days ago, the name Mark Lynas was little known outside the environmental community. An effective campaigner against genetically modified organisms, Lynas has also written several well-received books, including Six Degrees and The God Species. Recently, Lynas gave a speech at a conference on farming at OxfordUniversity, where he stated, in measured and scientific terms, that he had changed his mind. Lynas had been a leading voice against using GMOs in farming. He was also sounding the alarm over climate change, and had immersed himself in climate science. When he belatedly did the same with GMOs, he found that a careful reading of the scientific evidence revealed that his previous opposition was untenable. At Oxford Lynas said he was, in a word, sorry: “I want to start with some apologies. For the record, here and upfront, I apologize for having spent several years ripping up GM crops. I am also sorry that I helped to start the anti-GM movement back in the mid 1990s, and that I thereby assisted in demonizing an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment”.

Actress Jenny McCarthy was dropped from the Bust a Move fundraiser organized by a Canadian cancer foundation. The Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation reacted to a public backlash in signing the anti-vaccine campaigner to the Ottawa breast health fundraiser.

McCarthy was to headline a fitness class for the 2nd of March fundraiser at the Ottawa Athletic Club. The actress, author and former Playboy playmate is best known these days for her unconventional views on autism, specifically her anti-vaccination writings. Her son Evan Joseph was diagnosed with autism in 2005, but McCarthy says now her son is in “recovery” and is doing much better. McCarthy has claimed in interviews that her son was healed by experimental and unproven biomedical treatments, and she blamed the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine for giving her son autism. Yet despite her views, for which scientists have labeled her a menace to vaccination efforts, McCarthy was the choice of the cancer foundation for the fundraiser.

Gunmen riding on a motorcycle shot and killed a police officer protecting polio workers during a U.N.-backed vaccination campaign in northwestern Pakistan, the police said. The attack took place as dozens of polio workers — including several women — were going door to door to vaccinate children in Gullu Dheri village. None of the polio workers the police officer was protecting were hurt in the attack, he said. Some Islamic militants oppose the vaccination campaign, accuse health workers of acting as spies for the U.S. and claim the polio vaccine is intended to make Muslim children sterile. Pakistan is one of the few remaining places where polio is still rampant. In a separate incident in the northwest, a man wounded a polio worker with an axe. In December, gunmen killed nine polio workers in similar attacks across Pakistan, prompting authorities to suspend the vaccination campaign in the troubled areas.

Psychic and medium James Van Praagh, creator and executive producer of "Ghost Whisperer,” is suing his sister, who is now using the surname again after decades of marriage. Van Praagh claims his sister has started using her maiden named to cash in on his success, even though she took her husband’s surname, Gratton, four decades ago. James Van Praagh "is one of the most recognized spiritual mediums in the world", he argues in court papers filed last week in federal court on Long Island. The suit argues Gratton's use of the Van Praagh name will confuse and deceive the public. But Lynn Van Praagh-Gratton claims she’s a psychic in her own rights — a “bridge between worlds” who has the “gift of communicating on the other side with those who have passed”. It’s also unclear what value the Van Praagh name still has. James' reputation took a hit in 2008 when Barbara Walters debunked his claim she suffered from a blood disorder. Walters submitted to a blood test and announced on "The View" the result was normal.

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

When you were 15, chances are, revolutionizing medicine wasn't among your after-school activities. But for 15-year-old Jack Andraka, it's par for the course. The high school sophomore recently developed a revolutionary new test for early-stage pancreatic cancer. Jack Andraka created a simple dip-stick sensor to test for levels of mesothelin, which is a biomarker for early-stage pancreatic cancer that’s found in blood and urine. The method is similar to diabetic testing strips, utilizing just a pinprick of blood and costing all of three cents to make. What’s so revolutionary about Andraka's invention, aside from possibly being the most inexpensive medical test ever devised, is that current methods for pancreatic cancer detection are ineffective—for the most part, they're unable to uncover the presence of the disease until it’s in its final stages, long after it could respond to treatment. But this is about more than pancreatic cancer. Andraka explains his strips can be altered to detect biomarkers for other conditions as well. “What’s so cool about that is its applicability to other diseases… for example other forms of cancer, tuberculosis, HIV, environmental contaminants like E Coli, salmonella. All for three cents for a test that takes five minutes to run”, he said.

A controversial theory that the way we smell involves a quantum physics effect has received a boost, following experiments with human subjects. It challenges the notion that our sense of smell depends only on the shapes of molecules we sniff in the air. Instead, it suggests that the molecules' vibrations are responsible. A way to test it is with two molecules of the same shape, but with different vibrations. A report in PLOS ONE shows that humans can distinguish the two. Tantalizingly, the idea hints at quantum effects occurring in biological systems - an idea that is itself driving a new field of science. But the theory - first put forward by Luca Turin, now of the Fleming Biomedical Research Sciences Centre in Greece - remains contested and divisive. The idea that molecules' shapes are the only link to their smell is well entrenched, but Dr Turin said there were holes in the idea. He gave the example of molecules that include sulphur and hydrogen atoms bonded together - they may take a wide range of shapes, but all of them smell of rotten eggs. "If you look from the [traditional] standpoint... it's really hard to explain," Dr Turin explained.

Engineers dream of motors made out of single molecules that could jump-start the production of machines on the molecular level. However, simply modeling them after larger motors has been extremely difficult. Now, researchers from France and the University of Ohio have collaborated on a new approach and created the first compact molecular motor that can spin both clockwise and counterclockwise. “What must be done is to start from the bottom, to forget about the macroscopic scale,” said Christian Joachim, one of the lead authors of this project. The molecule is 1 nanometer high and 2 nanometers across, and is called a "piano-stool complex" because of its shape. It has a nonmoving three-legged base standing on a gold surface and a rotating top, or rotor, with a single atom of ruthenium connecting the two. This rotor contains five iron spokes, one of them shorter than the others to easily detect when it spins. The motor operates using a quantum mechanical process called inelastic electron tunneling, in which electrons that are shot at the molecule lose some of their energy in the transfer and the resulting vibrations turn the rotor. The researchers are now focusing on two goals: hooking the motor to a chain of nanometer-size gears and working to install it into a molecular nano-car in order to power and drive it.

People who meticulously check the calorie counts on nutrition labels and restaurant menus are in for some bad news: the tallies may be wrong, experts say. Recent studies show that the amount of pounding, slicing, mashing and perhaps even chewing that goes into preparing and eating food affects the number of calories people get. For some foods, a proportion of the calories in them remains "locked up" during digestion, and isn't used by the body. People also expend some of the energy from food just digesting it; and even the bacteria in people's guts steal a fraction of food's calories. None of these factors are accounted for in our current system for calculating calories, which dates back more than 100 years. Scientists have always known that calorie counts are just estimates. And over the years, some scientists have called for changes to the system. Now, researchers are again shining a spotlight on the issue, saying an overhaul of the calorie count system is needed so consumers have a better idea of exactly how many calories they get from the food they eat.

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

A lawyer from the Arges district has sued five priests accusing them of fraud, because the surmons he participated in to get rid of the demons he was haunted by had no effect. Madalin Ciculescu feels that he was a victim of fraud and decided to take action in court, also accusing the local archbishop for not properly supervising his priests. The lawyer was disappointed that he was unable to escape the demons that took over the electronics in his apartment. The priests declared that they are innocent in this unique malpractice case.

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