#26 TAM9: Placebo Medicine

This was a panel discussion moderated by Dr. Steven Novella discussing the Placebo effect and what it means. Mark Crislip began by defining it in basic terms as, "bullshit". Nice.

The discussion is based around the idea that alternative medicine has pretty much agreed that the placebo effect is real and that they are now trying to get the placebo effect from their treatments because it is still beneficial to the patients.

Mark Crislip: If CAM is equal to a placebo and placebo is equal to nothing then CAM is equal to nothing. It was brought up that there is a placebo effect in Parkinson's. Not everyone agrees. Steve Novella is commenting on how the brain can be a tool for pain management. You can convince the brain of different things that are akin to a placebo which might lend some validity to it. There is, however, no direct way to measure pain in response to placebo.

On the big screens are a couple slides from this weeks New England Journal of Medicine relating the effectiveness of Albuterol in treating asthma. They compared the results between Albuterol, a placebo, sham acupuncture, and a non-intervention control. The results showed that Albuterol greatly improved lung function while the other three had no effect. However, in the patient's reported results the placebo and the acupuncture appeared to have a nearly equal effect as the drug. The panelists are discussing how this is being reported in the media. They are saying that the placebo has a positive effect when the physical results show that the effect is really all in the patient's head. So, the acupuncture and the placebo made the patients feel better mentally but they still had reduced lung function. Wow.

The panel is disagreeing as to wether the placebo effect belongs on medicine. Crislip is not buying it. He is constantly saying that he doesn't want to use the placebo effect because he feels that it is essentially lying to the patient. The others seem to disagree. Unfortunately, I think the placebo effect would, and does, work in a lot of the people in this country. Personally, I would rather have the truth and the real medicine. If I can't be cured, tell me. I'll start working on those things I need to do before I die. Steve is saying that there is a gray area where you use certain treatments that may or may not work but you do it to placate the patient.

Don't placate me or lie to me! I want the truth! Doctor: You can't handle the truth!

Live blogging from TAM9, Las Vegas, NV.

#25 Ethics of Paranormal Investigation

The first event this morning at The Amaz!ng Meeting 9 is a panel with James Randi, Karen Stollznow, Ben Radford, Joe Nickell, and Banachek, and is being moderated by Julia Galef.

The panelists are discussing going undercover and using deception during their investigations. They all feel that some deception is necessary occasionally. Randi, with his Darwinesque beard, does not go undercover and uses agents, such as Banachek for Project Alpha, instead.

The crowd is much smaller than yesterday. Many people are likely still in bed after partying all night. Other academic conferences that I've been to had ethics panels in the morning of the second or third day. Is it because the subject has a tendency to be a little dry and no one will be there? Might have to investigate that. Back to ethics.

Banachek feels that you need to set rules ahead of time for the investigation you are doing otherwise you could be seen as just doing a con. That seems logical. A serious investigation or an under cover operation should be treated as a science experiment that utilizes the scientific method. Would a college IRB approve an undercover experiment into the paranormal?

When dealing with issues of confidentiality it depends on the person. Nickell feels that it's a judgement call. If the person you are investigating is public and has a public persona then he feels it is OK to publish about them. Banachek feels that psychics prefer their privacy and he tries to preserve that if he can. Ben Radford once kept pictures of the front of a family's house out of an article to give them privacy. In another case a family thought they had a ghost. He let them down by saying if you had a ghost, it's gone now. He didn't run in, guns blazing, saying that they are full of crap and that ghosts don't exist.

Joe Nickell related an interesting story about a local skeptics group. The group wanted him to go with them to a haunted house. He agreed but when they wanted to bring a reporter he objected. He said that it creates an adversarial environment where the group is now trying to debunk something and could be playing to the needs of the reporter. As in academic research, you still need to preserve the integrity of your research subjects and make sure that you don't intentionally humiliate them.

Radford discussed the "children never lie" phenomenon. Parents are reluctant to believe that their children could be responsible for alleged paranormal activity. Randi agrees and says that children constantly test their environment to see what they can get away with.

The main point of the ethics discussion centered around truth and honesty. The panelists all agreed that you need a set of rules before you set out so you know how to respond to any situation that comes up. They also agree that humiliating your subjects and demeaning them for their beliefs is something they try to avoid,

I wonder whether it is ethical to NOT tell people that ghosts don't exist or that they can't tell the future. Don't tell them in a way that is disrespectful but do tell them. I feel that people need to know and part of the point of the investigation is to challenge paranormal activity. Of course, I'm not a paranormal investigator so these are just my opinions.

Live blogged during TAM9 in Las Vegas, NV.

#24 Heros: Experiences at TAM9

The end of the first official conference day at this year’s The Amaz!ng Meeting 9 is here.  My fiance and I went down to the pool after dinner and are now relaxing and reflecting on the day in our hotel room before going to Penn Jillette’s Rock & Roll Doughnut and Bacon Party.  I know.  I have no idea what to expect.  But that’s not what I wanted to talk about.

Heros.  I’ve never really been one to idolize anyone.  When I see a celebrity or sports figure in the airport or out on the town I never rush over for an autograph or get all gushy about it.  They are people.  I might say something to someone because of the novelty of the event but that’s about where it ends.  Bragging about a celebrity siting doesn’t really do anything for me.  

The only time I get excited about seeing certain people is at conferences.  When I go to academic conferences I’m always trying to spot faces and names from papers and books I’ve read.  They are our celebrities.  Here at TAM I’m constantly seeing podcasters, bloggers, and authors that I follow and read.  I’ve heard some people say that they are in the midst of their heros but is that the right way to phrase it?  The more I think about it, the more I’m just not sure.

What is a hero?  Are people that are doing jobs that they signed up for (firefighters, police, military) heros?  Possibly.  It does take a different sort of person to choose that lifestyle.  What about the guy walking down the street that dies or injures himself saving someone from a burning car?  He didn’t ask to be a hero but to a lot of people, he is.  Don’t even get me started on sports figures.  If I had a physical talent and could get paid $1,000,000 a game for using it I’m sure I would.  Actually, I wouldn’t, but a lot of people would.

So, what about podcasters?  Bloggers? Authors?  Some people see them as heros too.  Personally, I see them as examples, as leaders, as positive influences, and as trailblazers in the skeptical and critical thinking movement (at least the ones I listen to and read).  I guess that is my definition of “hero”.  However, I still don’t like using that term.

“Hero” implies some sort of worship in this country.  People seem to idolize “heros” and follow their every move.  I want to watch and listen to my “heros” but I want to forge my own path, blaze my own trail, and make my mark in my own way.  I’m learning from their examples and taking notes.  I listen to the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe every week but I don’t want a poster of them in my house and I don’t want their autographs.  Well, I would get them to sign a book but that is different.  I collect non-fiction science related books and having author signatures makes them more personal.

Click pic for a larger version.Today we all watched a panel on the future of space exploration.  It was moderated by Dr. Phil Plait (Author of Death from the Skies).  On the panel were Bill Nye (The Science Guy), Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson (director of the Hayden Planetarium and host of Nova’s Science Now), Dr. Pamela Gay (astronomer and co-host of Astronomy Cast), and Lawrence Krauss (theoretical astrophysicist and author).  It’s not even important what they were talking about.  To me, the take away lesson from watching and listening to the discussion was the passion they showed for the topic.  The panelists eloquently argued their points, were sometimes very animated, and kept the audience in a state of excitement the entire time.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many people enthralled by a talk on space exploration.  The Twitter feed was going crazy.  There were 25 to 50 tweets per minute throughout the discussion.  Why?  Why was everyone so enthralled and engaged?  Passion.

You can present the best, most thought out, arguments to someone but if you don’t show that you believe what you are saying with conviction then you’re going to be a hard sell.  People respond to passionate displays.  People don’t respond to apathy and monotone speeches.  I might be getting off topic.  My point is that “heros” within the science community are those that get their point across to a wide audience and sometimes actually influence people and change minds.  That is what this is all about.  Present your case, let people evaluate it, make their own decisions, and come up with their own conclusions.  That is all you can do.  If you did it right then people will remember you and what you said when they are confronted with a decision that pertains to your discussion.  

The people I’ve seen today lead very different lives from each other but have the same passion for what they do.  Some of them are superstars here at TAM but are going back to a computer and a cubicle on Monday.  Many of the speakers and presenters have written books and have been on TV.  But, as I’ve said, they all have passion and they are all, likely, somebody’s hero, or whatever you want to call them, if only for the short time we are at TAM.


Written at South Point Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada