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Skeptical reporter @ 2013-02-15

Skeptical Reporter for February 1st, 2013

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

The editors at Doubtful News are working on a guideline on skepticism for the media. They are welcoming contributions and suggestions to make this document complete, easy to understand and use. This is what the announcement had to say: “the purpose is to provide a clear, easy to read guide about the “skeptical” viewpoint as subscribed to by many who might call themselves Skeptics or critical thinkers; to distinguish practical skepticism from the popular use of the phrase “I’m skeptical,” and from those who claim to be “skeptics” regarding some widely accepted conclusion (such as climate change)”. So if you have time, do not hesitate to bring your contribution to this initiative, here:

And now for some skeptical news

An attorney for a former student of Ramtha’s School of Enlightenment is barred from asking the school’s leader, JZ Knight, about alleged practices such as encouraging students to drink a liquid containing lye that, according to the former student’s affidavit, is supposed to “accelerate our individual enlightenment.” Knight’s videotaped deposition will be part of a breach-of-contract lawsuit brought by the mystic teacher against a former student of her school, Virginia Coverdale. The suit seeks damages in response to Coverdale’s release of videos showing Knight making derogatory comments about Mexicans, Catholics and others last year. Reposting of the videos by a local conservative think tank, the Freedom Foundation, prompted Republicans to call for Democratic candidates to give back campaign contributions they had received from Knight. The suit also seeks a permanent injunction barring Coverdale from releasing any other unauthorized materials belonging to the school. The school alleges the materials are protected by a contract Coverdale signed upon enrollment. A restraining order barring any such release of protected materials is in place pending the outcome of the lawsuit. In court filings, attorneys for the Ramtha school accused Coverdale of attempting to authorize lines of questioning during Knight’s deposition with the intent to “embarrass and harass” Knight.

In 2009, when the Texas State Board of Education adopted new science curriculum standards, some noted that proponents of creationism had inserted language they would later try to exploit to pressure publishers into including their arguments against evolution in new textbooks. Barbara Cargill, the Republican state board chair from The Woodlands near Houston, has recently done so, suggesting materials for students should from now on include arguments on “all sides” of evolution. Speaking at a Senate Education Committee hearing in Austin about CSCOPE, a curriculum management tool developed by Education Service Centers around the state and used by many school districts, Cargill said she thinks CSCOPE doesn’t conform to the science standards because it doesn’t teach “all sides” about evolution: “Our intent, as far as theories with the [curriculum standards], was to teach all sides of scientific explanations… But when I went on [the website] last night, I couldn’t see anything that might be seen as another side to the theory of evolution. Every link, every lesson, everything, you know, was taught as ‘this is how the origin of life happened, this is what the fossil record proves,’ and all that’s fine, but that’s only one side”.

In Great Britain, the Foundation for Integrated Medicine persuaded officials to neuter advice about homeopathy on the NHS Choices patient website. Draft guidance for the website NHS Choices warning that there is no evidence that homeopathy works was suppressed by officials following lobbying by a charity set up by the Prince of Wales. Homeopathy is "rubbish", said chief medical officer Sally Davies in January to the House of Commons science and technology committee. She added that she was "perpetually surprised" that homeopathy was available in some places on the NHS. But the government's NHS Choices website, which is intended to offer evidence-based information and advice to the public on treatments, does not reflect her view. A draft page that spelled out the scientific implausibility of homeopathic remedies was neutered by Department of Health officials. It is now uncritical, with just links to reports on the lack of evidence. Lobbying by opponents, and the response from DH officials who did not want to take on Prince Charles's now defunct Foundation for Integrated Medicine and other supporters of homeopathy, is revealed in correspondence from the department discussing the new guidance. There is no evidence that Prince Charles was involved personally in the lobbying.

In the United States, a petition to have acupuncture recognized as a profession and have it included in the Medicare system has gained 25.000 signatures. This means it will receive a formal response from the presidency. Acupuncturists welcomed the news and announced: “The new year has proven to be a promising one for acupuncturists nationwide. On the start of the Chinese New Year, the White House petition to recognize acupuncture as a profession and have it included in the Medicare system met the White House standard of having more than 25,000 signatures in order to mandate a formal response by the White House. As of press time, the petition had a total of 26,743 signatures. The petition was created on Jan. 11 and has gained fast momentum in the last few weeks with thousands of acupuncturists nationwide logging on to sign the petition. In an effort to make a case, the petition notes studies have shown that when an acupuncturist is directly involved in patient care for pain management and other issues, the patient recovers quicker with less medication required”.

And now let’s look at some news in science

Women who take folic acid supplements before becoming pregnant, as well as early in pregnancy, may reduce the risk of having a child with an autism spectrum disorder, according to a new study. Researchers followed 85,176 babies born between 2002 and 2008 for three to 10 years to determine whether their mother's use of folic acid supplements influenced the risk of developing an autism spectrum disorder. The researchers focused on women who had taken folic acid supplements for 4 weeks before they became pregnant until 8 weeks after the start of the pregnancy. The babies were part of the Autism Birth Cohort Study, a subset of the Norwegian Mother and Child Cohort Study (MoBa). Women who had taken folic acid supplements in early pregnancy had a 40 percent reduced risk of having a child with autistic disorder than did women who had not taken the supplement. No reduction in risk was shown for Asperger syndrome.

Scientists have demonstrated that the uncertainty principle, one of the most famous rules of quantum physics, operates in macroscopic objects visible to the naked eye. The principle, described by physicist Werner Heisenberg nearly a century ago, states that the mere act of measuring the position of a particle, such as an electron, necessarily disturbs its momentum. That means the more precisely you try to measure its location, the less you know about how fast it's moving, and vice versa. While in theory this principle operates on all objects, in practice its effects were thought to be measurable only in the tiny realm where the rules of quantum mechanics are important. In a new experiment, described in the journal Science, physicists have shown that the uncertainty principle effects can be detected in a tiny drum visible to the naked eye.

According to estimations, every car by a major brand will be connected to the internet by 2014. Using a hand-held mobile phone while driving a car has been illegal in the UK since 2003. But 10 years later, car manufacturers are hoping that the technology regularly found on smartphones could help motorists drive safely by sensing nearby vehicles. What this means is app-culture infiltrating the dashboard - from a parking space finder to a way to get coupons for local restaurants, or directions that can pop up on the windscreen. It all relies on the car being connected to the internet, allowing all this information to arrive without too much searching or button pushing and a lot more focus on voice commands. The connected car is already the third fastest growing technological device after phones and tablets, Intel believes. By 2020, $600 billion - or 20% of the value of new connected vehicles - will be able to be attributed to "connected life", according to Machina Research. Intel alone is investing $100 million in the next five years in companies that can quicken the adoption of connected cars. "By the end of 2014, for some of the bigger brands, every vehicle they sell will offer some sort of connectivity," says Jack Bergquist of information company IHS.

US researchers have effectively given laboratory rats a "sixth sense" using an implant in their brains. An experimental device allowed the rats to "touch" infrared light - which is normally invisible to them. The team at Duke University fitted the rats with an infrared detector wired up to microscopic electrodes that were implanted in the part of their brains that processes tactile information. The researchers say that, in theory at least, a human with a damaged visual cortex might be able to regain sight through a device implanted in another part of the brain. Lead author Miguel Nicolelis said this was the first time a brain-machine interface has augmented a sense in adult animals. His colleague Eric Thomson commented: "The philosophy of the field of brain-machine interfaces has until now been to attempt to restore a motor function lost to lesion or damage of the central nervous system. This is the first paper in which a neuroprosthetic device was used to augment function - literally enabling a normal animal to acquire a sixth sense".

And in local news from Romania we learn that

The Education Ministry is taking physical activity in students more seriously. Starting with next year, students in middle school will start attending four hours of physical education classes every week, as minister of Education Remus Pricopie has announced. The students will be gradually introduced to the more intense regime of activity and more teachers in the field will be hired in order to supplement the numbers. The minister has explained that the change was needed considering that students already spend a lot of time preparing for the class instead of actually doing sports.


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