Skepticism, Religion Archive

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A Skeptical Look at Bio-Identical Hormone Replacement Therapy

CaduceusA few weeks ago, my wife attended a presentation by a local doctor and a local pharmacy on something called bio-identical hormone replacement therapy (BHRT). (If you've read this blog before, guess which pharmacy.) The presentation sounded mostly reasonable, but a few things that were said didn't sit quite right with my wife, so she asked me to use my Google skills to research it a bit for her. I'm not a doctor, but I have a healthy skepticism. And when professional organizations with the appropriate expertise express concerns over specific treatments, I become even more skeptical of claims of proponents of those treatments.

Before getting into everything that I found, here's the bottom line. Conventional hormone replacement therapy carries risks, but may be worth it for the patient. That's up for the patient and their doctor to decide. Bio-identical hormone replacement therapy doesn't appear to be significantly safer, if at all, compared to conventional hormone replacement therapy. After more trials and research, it may turn out that BHRT is slightly better than conventional HRT, but somebody needs to do the work to determine that, first. If someone's considering hormone replacement therapy, they shouldn't buy into claims that the bio-identical variety is safer, and shouldn't let those claims influence their decision on whether or not to use hormone replacement therapy.

My gut feel is that the people making the claims about BHRT are full of it. I've always been skeptical of the people who think 'natural' means safer (remember that cyanide and snake venom are natural, too), and that seems to be one of the main arguments for BHRT. The pamphlets promoting BHRT even had some statements about how pharmaceutical companies won't research BHRT because there's no profit in it, which of course set off my BS detectors, since it just rings of a conspiracy theory. Any doctors or pharmacies making unfounded claims about the benefits of BHRT are, in my opinion, being dishonest.

Anyway, I looked up a few sites to see what people had to say about BHRT and compounded BHRT. Here's what I found.

Continue reading "A Skeptical Look at Bio-Identical Hormone Replacement Therapy" »

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Balanced Views

As with most of my recent blog entries, this started as an e-mail response to a friend, and has been adapted for use here.

Libra ScalesLooking to alternate viewpoints to get a balanced view of things is something we should all strive to do. If you only ever visit forums where everyone agrees with each other, those forums become echo chambers, and nobody ever examines their views. On the opposite end of the spectrum, though, just how do you determine who's worth listening to when there are so many voices and not all views are equally valid?

Strictly logically speaking, it makes no difference who's making an argument. It's the arguments themselves that need to be addressed to determine whether they're true or not. If you hang around the Internet long enough, you're bound to see people using the term ad hominem to criticize arguments against the messenger that ignore the message. Practically speaking, though, there's no way to read every point out there. In the age of the Internet, everybody with a computer can broadcast their opinions to the entire world. And with hundreds of channels on the satellite, even TV doesn't have the same respectability as it once did. At what point can you say that a certain source is no longer trustworthy, and no longer worth spending your time reading what they have to say? When the boy keeps crying wolf, at what point do you quit paying attention?

Are there any sources so outlandish you can just ignore them altogether? For example, in arguments over science curricula, I could point you to an organization that honestly and truly believes the world is flat. They've got quite a website with discussion forums to support their claim. But are they even worth taking a first look? It's very, very well documented that the world is roughly spherical. Can't we just call those people cranks without worrying about examining both sides of the flat earth issue?

A 'culture war' I've gotten more caught up in myself is evolution/geology/astronomy (and I guess you could throw physics in there too for radioactive decay & the speed of light) vs. creationism. I'd always accepted the science, but wondered if I might have been missing something when I first learned just how many people in this country doubted evolution and an ancient universe (this was around the time that Intelligent Design began making headlines a few years ago). So, I looked into the claims made by groups like Answers in Genesis, the Discovery Institute, the Institute for Creation Research, or individuals like Kent Hovind or Ray Comfort, and at the same time looked a little more into how science works and how we know what we know. The end result, as could probably be expected, is that the evidence for evolution and an ancient universe is overwhelming, and all those anti-science groups had used a lot of poor arguments (and even some dishonesty) to support their cause. But, they continue writing new essays and books, coming up with more arguments, and even making movies to support their claims. Am I still obligated to read what they have to say? Is it wrong to dismiss their new arguments out of hand because I've already seen how poorly they've performed in the past? Is it close minded to not want to waste any more of my time with them?

I guess what I'm getting at is the issue of credibility. Of course, we should always be skeptical of every source, never completely trust any single one, and always seek verification from other independent sources. Some sources are credible enough, however, that you can be pretty confident in the information from them until you see conflicting information from another source, while other sources are so lacking in credibility that you shouldn't accept anything from them until you've seen it elsewhere. Dictionaries and encyclopedias would fall into the former category. They're bound to have a few errors, but the entire editorial process guarantees that they're pretty darned accurate. E-mail forwards and tabloids definitely fall into the latter category. Other sources fall some where in between, so we have to determine how much trust we have in those sources.

Credibility isn't just about honesty. I'm sure the flat earthers I mentioned above are sincere in their claims and don't think they're lying. But they're still completely wrong, none the less. So, credibility has as much to do with competence as it does with sincerity.

One of the things that I'm really big on is science. I think it's the best method we have for answering questions that have objective answers, or in other words, the best method we have for determining reality. Some questions are beyond science. For example, gun control comes down to a question of personal freedom vs. societal safety. It's a question of how much value we place on those two aspects. Science can't give us those values. It can certainly provide statistics, telling us how many people a year are killed by guns or comparing safety in nations with gun control laws to those without. So, we can use science to help inform our opinion, but we can't use it to make the final decisions on legislation.

Most people don't understand science very well, but for most of those people, you just have to let it slide or you'd be arguing all the time, and I'd rather just enjoy their company (as I've pointed out before, 1 in 4 Americans thinks the Sun goes around the Earth, and over half don't realize electrons are smaller than atoms). But, once people are in a position of public prominence, where their voice is heard by a large number of people, they have a responsibility to make sure their voice is accurate. And that means either having a very good grip on science themselves, or, less preferably, knowing where to go to get the results from science.

This is especially true for politicians. They make the laws that affect all of us, so they need to make sure that their laws are based in reality. And they deal with a large range of issues, so they need to know how to determine the best sources even when the issue is outside their immediate field of expertise. When politicians get the science wrong, it really makes me question their credibility. It means either that they're ignorant, or that they're willing to put their ideology ahead of the evidence (or, hopefully much less common, that they're willing to lie to pander to their constituents).

One of the most obvious examples of this is global warming. The evidence for global warming is very strong, and the vast majority of experts in the relevant fields are confident in the science. When I see politicians or other public figures claim that global warming isn't happening, or saying that the science isn't all that certain, it makes me question everything else they say. Another example, not quite so prevalent yet, but getting bigger, is the anti-vaccination movement, or the whole alternative medicine movement in general. Medicine now is the best it's ever been in history, thanks almost entirely to evidence based practices and the double blind clinical trial. Vaccines have saved millions. People who are willing to ignore that put their lives at risk, and in the case of the anti-vaccination movement, put other's lives at risk because of reduced herd immunity. So, the global warming denialists, anti-vaccinationists, alternative medicine proponents, or anyone else who gets science egregiously wrong, also make me question everything else that they say, because it shows that they're too ignorant to understand the evidence or are willing to ignore that evidence when it suits their agenda.

Everything I've said so far has been pretty neutral on politics - just general statements. But I'll be honest - in the past decade or so since I've been more actively following politics, it seems that Republicans are worse off in the credibility department than Democrats (i.e. The Republican War on Science). It's certainly not an all or nothing dichotomy, as there are plenty of Democrats I wouldn't trust as far as I could throw, and plenty of crazy ideas seem to be more associated with the left (9/11 conspiracy theories, alternative medicine), but as the comedian Stephen Colbert often says, it seems that "Reality has a well known liberal bias." Maybe my perception is due to sampling bias because I receive far more erroneous e-mail forwards that support Republicans than those supporting Democrats. Maybe it's because the Republicans have been in power, so they've been critiqued a bit closer, and maybe I'll start to see more of it coming from the left now that they're in power. Maybe it was the Bush administration in particular that abused science, and it isn't such a general trait for all Republicans. Maybe the official platform of the Texas GOP isn't actually representative of most Texas Republicans or indicative of Republicans in other states. But you don't often hear of Democratic school board members introducing anti-evolution measures. And the amount of Republican politicians who refuse to make a simple comment on Obama's citizenship, or who fanned the flames of this death panel nonsense and spread other misinformation over the health care debate, doesn't help with their credibility, either.

I thought of not including that previous paragraph so that this entry would remain politically neutral, but that's honestly how I see it, and I figured that it would help others to see partly why I have the views I do. I realize that politicians from both sides of the aisle will lie to win votes, but my impression is that there's far more misinformation from the right side than the left. But, that's also why I appreciate the conservative e-mails that friends send me, and hope that they keep sending me. It keeps me from only seeing one side of things.

Anyway, I apologize for rambling a bit with this entry. Looking to alternate viewpoints to get a balanced view of things is a noble goal. The problem is that there's just not enough time to listen to everybody's point of view, so it becomes a challenge of figuring out who's credible enough to listen to in the first place.

Updated 2009-09-09 - Removed a section describing my own views on gun control, since it doesn't add at all to the theme of this entry.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Response to an E-Mail Supposedly Summarizing Dr. Charles Krauthammer's Views on Obama

ObamaWell, I got another e-mail that I couldn't help but respond to, and that I figured was worth publishing my response on this blog. I don't mean to makethis blog too political (there are a lot of other things I like much more than politics), but recycling e-mails is an easy way to come up with blog entries.

Anyway, like normal for these things, I've formatted the entry to put the original e-mail in blockquotes, followed by my responses (edited just a bit from the e-mail version). My responses are not meant to be a complete point by point refutation of the e-mail, but only cover the most outrageous statements.

Krauthammer's Views on President Barack Obama

Dr. Krauthammer is on Fox News. He is an M.D. and he is paralyzed from the neck down. Be forewarned on what is happening. A friend went to hear Charles Krauthammer. He listened with 25 others in closed room. What he says here, is NOT 2nd-hand, but 1st.

Last Monday was a profound evening, hearing Dr. Charles Krauthammer speak to the Center for the American Experiment. He is brilliant intellectual, seasoned and articulate. He is forthright and careful in his analysis, and never resorts to emotions or personal insults. He is NOT a fear monger nor an extremist in his comments and views. He is a fiscal conservative, and has a Pulitzer Prize for writing. He is a frequent contributor to Fox News and writes weekly for the Washington Post. The entire room was held spellbound during his talk. I have shared this with many of you and several have asked me to summarize his comments, as we are living in uncharted waters economically and internationally.

According to Krauthammer himself, this is not an accurate representation of his talk. Remember not to trust anything in an e-mail until you've seen independent confirmation somewhere else.

The authorship says nothing about the validity of the claims. However, realize that it means that these are just the thoughts of somebody with an e-mail account, not those of somebody with the credentials of Krauthammer.

1. Mr. Obama is a very intellectual, charming individual. He is not to be underestimated. He is a cool customer who doesn't show his emotions. It's very hard to know what's behind the mask. Taking down the Clinton dynasty from a political neophyte was an amazing accomplishment. The Clintons still do not understand what hit them. Obama was in the perfect place at the perfect time.

Nothing to refute, since it's just claiming that Obama is a good politician.

2. Obama has political skills comparable to Reagan and Clinton. He has a way of making you think he's on your side, agreeing with your position, while doing the opposite. Pay no attention to what he SAYS; rather, watch what he DOES!

Nothing to refute here, either. It's simply saying that, as with all politicians, pay attention to their actions, not their campaign promises.

3. Obama has a ruthless quest for power. He did not come to Washington to make something out of himself, but rather to change everything, including dismantling capitalism. He can’t be straightforward on his ambitions, as the public would not go along. He has a heavy hand, and wants to level the playing field with income redistribution and punishment to the achievers of society. He would like to model the USA to Great Britain or Canada .

Seems a bit hyperbolic, don't you think? A bit inconsistent, too, claiming Obama wants to dismantle capitalism, while at the same time claiming Obama wants to model the US after the UK and Canada, both of which are capitalist.

As far as leveling the playing field, yes Democrats do favor a bit more redistribution than Republicans. I tend to agree with some redistribution which I've already explained previously. I have to admit to benefiting from that redistribution myself, since I took advantage of government scholarships to help pay for my college (actually, I know very few people who went to college without some sort of financial aid from the government).

4. His three main goals are to control ENERGY, PUBLIC EDUCATION, AND NATIONAL HEALTH CARE by the Federal government. He doesn't care about the auto or financial services industries, but got them as an early bonus. The cap and trade will add costs to everything and stifle growth. Paying for FREE college education is his goal. Most scary is his healthcare program, because if you make it FREE and add 46,000,000 people to a Medicare-type single-payer system, the costs will go through the roof.. The only way to control costs is with massive RATIONING of services, like in Canada . God forbid.

As I've said many times, economics isn't my strong point. I'm sure a carbon cap and trade system will raise prices somewhat, but how else do we pay for the development of technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions? Even if Krauthammer or the author of this e-mail have a different proposal than a cap and trade system, the money for that development has to come from somewhere, which ultimately means from us, either in higher taxes or higher prices on goods.

Is a free college education really that bad of a thing? Does the author think higher education should be reserved only for those that can afford it?

As far as health care, I'm getting a bit sick of hearing people only refer to Canada or the UK when complaining about universal health care (and stretching the truth when referring to those two countries, as well). Why doesn't anyone ever talk of the Netherlands, France, or Spain? On this blog, I've already referred previously to a good article comparing health care in the U.S. to the rest of the industrialized world. Here it is again.

Here's another link, this one from the World Health Organization. In 2000, it ranked the U.S. health care system 37th in the world.

As far as the rationing comment, the only way to control costs of any health care system with finite resources is through some sort of rationing, which is currently being done in the U.S. primarily by the private insurance companies. In the real world, where we don't have unlimited money to spend, some amount of rationing has to be done, no matter how much we may dislike it.

I've written a bit more on the health care issue here.

5. He has surrounded himself with mostly far-left academic types. No one around him has ever even run a candy store. But they are going to try and run the auto, financial, banking and other industries. This obviously can’t work in the long run. Obama is not a socialist; rather he's a far-left secular progressive bent on nothing short of revolution. He ran as a moderate, but will govern from the hard left. Again, watch what he does, not what he says.

This author really thinks Obama has surrounded himself with the far left? The main complaint I've seen on more liberal sites is that Obama is too far right. He's made a point to include many moderates and even Republicans in his appointments.

I think the words that this author used perjoratively are interesting. For example, 'far left academic types'. Is he implying that educated and liberal are the same thing? Does he have a problem specifically with educated people? The other interesting term was 'secular progressive'. What's wrong with secular politicians? We have a secular government. Most activities we perform are secular. Does this author want a theocracy?

And what's with the hyperbole with 'revolution'?

6. Obama doesn’t really see himself as President of the United States , but more as a ruler over the world. He sees himself above it all, trying to orchestrate and coordinate various countries and their agendas. He sees moral equivalency in all cultures. His apology tour in Germany and England was a prime example of how he sees America , as an imperialist nation that has been arrogant, rather than a great noble nation that has at times made errors. This is the first President ever who has chastised our allies and appeased our enemies!

This isn't even consistent. Obama supposedly sees himself as ruler of the world, yet travels the world apologizing for our mistakes? And why do people consider it unpatriotic to own up to mistakes?

7. He is now handing out goodies. He hopes that the bill (and pain) will not come due until after he is re-elected in 2012. He would like to blame all problems on Bush from the past, and hopefully his successor in the future. He has a huge ego, and Mr. Krauthammer believes he is a narcissist.

Not enough of substance here to refute.

8. Republicans are in the wilderness for a while, but will emerge strong. We're pining for another Reagan, but there will never be another like him. Krauthammer believes Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty and Bobby Jindahl (except for his terrible speech in February) are the future of the party. Newt Gingrich is brilliant, but has baggage. Sarah Palin is sincere and intelligent, but needs to really be seriously boning up on facts and info if she is to be a serious candidate in the future. We need to return to the party of lower taxes, smaller government, personal responsibility, strong national defense, and state’s rights.

Not really much to comment on here, since it's a statement of subjective preferences. The only thing is that I would prefer to see 'fiscal responsibility' rather than 'lower taxes.' When the government has to increase spending, the only responsible thing to do is pay for it. And I'll skip commenting on the quality of those particular people (except 'death panel', 'global warming isn't real' Palin - I still can't believe she was a candidate for VP).

9. The current level of spending is irresponsible and outrageous. We are spending trillions that we don’t have. This could lead to hyper-inflation, depression or worse. No country has ever spent themselves into prosperity. The media is giving Obama, Reid and Pelosi a pass because they love their agenda. But eventually the bill will come due and people will realize the huge bail outs didn’t work, nor will the stimulus package.

These were trillion-dollar payoffs to Obama’s allies, unions and the Congress to placate the left, so he can get support for #4 above.

I know this e-mail is about Obama, but how can Republicans claim the high ground on fiscal responsibility? With Reagan and Bush senior, the national deficit increased. We had a brief respite and a budget surplus under Clinton. Then, after 6 years of Republican controlled House, Senate, and executive, we had huge deficits. Yes, we were fighting a war under Bush Jr., but how can you justify lowering taxes when you know there's going to be increased spending?

As far as the recession, the current consensus among economists is that it seems to be getting better. I realize people will argue over the cause until the cows come home, but I think a fair case can be made for the government's intervention actually helping. At any rate, if the consensus is correct, it certainly puts to rest the claims that the current policies are only going to make matters worse.

10. The election was over in mid-September when Lehman brothers failed, fear and panic swept in, we had an unpopular President, and the war was grinding on indefinitely without a clear outcome. The people are in pain, and the mantra of change caused people to act emotionally. Any Dem would have won this election; it was surprising it was as close as it was.

I agree that the war and the economic crisis pretty much did guarantee that the Democrats would win the presidential election. But this author's surpised it was so close? Obama had the largest percentage of the popular vote in decades - the largest by the non-incumbent party since FDR.

11. In 2012, if the unemployment rate is over 10%, Republicans will be swept back into power. If it's under 8%, the Dems continue to roll. If it's between 8-10%, it will be a dogfight. It will all be about the economy. I hope this gets you really thinking about what's happening in Washington and Congress. There is a left-wing revolution going on, according to Krauthammer, and he encourages us to keep the faith and join the loyal resistance. The work will be hard, but we're right on most issues and can reclaim our country, before it's far too late.

Well, we'll just have to wait and see what happens in 3 years.

Anyway, I apologize for the recent glut of politcal entries, but I have to confess that I have a few more in the works right now. I probably wouldn't write so many, though, if politics wasn't so full of people claiming things that weren't true. Hopefully I can get this all out of my system and get back to writing about less controversial topics, like evolution and religion.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Website Update-New Pamphlet Added to Religious Essays

The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of AtheismI've added a new pamphlet to my Religious Essays section, A Brief Introduction to Non-Belief. I can be a bit long winded, and although I like all of the points I made in the main essays, I realized that their length might discourage people from reading them. This new pamphlet covers the most common question and misconceptions I encounter when people first learn I'm an atheist. It's short enough that it fits onto a single 8.5" x 11" sheet of paper (as long as you print on both sides). I also corrected numerous typos from the other essays while I was at it.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Universal Health Care

CaduceusUniversal health care has been a hot topic for debate for a while now, but has just recently begun making big headlines with the new proposed health care plan by the Obama administration. I've never really had a huge respect for the knowledge of our country's population (e.g. 1 in 4 Americans think the Sun goes around the Earth), but some of the statements I see coming from the right wing on this are just mind numbingly ignorant - or extremly dishonest.

I've briefly mentioned universal healthcare in a previous entry. Here's what I had to say back then:

If May was referring to something other than the stimulus packages, the policy I've personally heard referred to as socialism the most often is universal health care. I don't understand why everyone is so against it. Compared to industrialized nations with universal health care, the U.S. spends about twice the amount on health care (from either a per capita or GDP basis), but our quality of care isn't any better and we have less access to physicians (

Now, if you follow the link from the above quote, you'll find data comparing the health care systems of various prosperous democracies (mostly Australia, Canada, Germany, The Netherlands, New Zealand, The UK, and The USA, with a bit of data for other countries). Note that the U.S. is the only one of those countries without universal health care. What the data show is that, in addition to what was already stated above about the U.S. spending far more per capita (around double) than the other countries in the comparison, that in most measures of quality of health care, the U.S. does worse than almost all the other countries, with the exceptions being Canada and the UK for certain issues.

Now, I was getting pretty used to conservatives simply pointing to Canada and the UK as examples of why universal healthcare was a bad idea. And I'd point out that there are other types of universal health care plans out there, and that we don't need to emulate the worst examples. But it seems that recently, even just pointing to the two worst plans wasn't enough, and now I'm starting to hear just out and out falsehoods about healthcare in the UK and Canada, and falsehoods about the president's new plan.

There's a decent article in the Guardian about some of the claims coming out about the UK's health care system. As I said already, given how poor the UK system is compared to other universal health care systems, you'd think conservatives would just stick to cherry picking data, and wonder why they would resort to lying about the UK's system.

Probably the most famous example of misrepresenting Obama's plan is the whole 'death panel' fiasco. Palin made headlines on that, and now other conservative leaders, such as Gingrich, have even backed up her statements. And it's not as if I chose two radical fringe elements to be easy targets - one was the vice presidential candidate, and the other was the Speaker of the House. (At least other Republicans, like Senator Murkowski and Senator Isakson have tried to set the record straight.) You've got to wonder about what these people are thinking. Are they really that ignorant? Are they lying because they'll do anything to keep from having socialized medicine in any form? Is it simply to appease their base? Whatever the reason, it boggles the mind that they can state such blatant untruths, and still have a sizeable portion of Americans support them.

When it comes to universal health care, I do support it, but in a rather guarded way. Looking at that link I provided earlier about health care in other countries, it's clear that universal health care can be either a boon or a bane, depending on how it's implemented. It's neither a guaranteed utopia, nor a guaranteed descent into becoming a new USSR. Considering our government's track record with big programs (they've done good with things like NASA and the FDA, but not so good with things like the TSA), this is something that needs to be watched closely.

Universal health care also makes sense considering the system that we already have in place. I've already written my thoughts on this in a comment on The New Minority blog, which I'll paraphrase here.

One issue is that we already do have a de facto national health care system. Publicly funded hospitals cannot turn away anyone for a life threatening emergency. And honestly, I like that. I don't want to show up at a hospital bleeding out, and have to wait on some clerk to clear my insurance before the surgeons fix me up. And I don't want paramedics to be the ones making decisions on whether or not I get treated when the ambulance shows up.

Accepting that means that insured and non-insured alike get treated, and some of the treatments are too expensive to ever be paid off by the people that received them (even if you garnished 100% of their wages for the rest of their lives, as I've heard some people suggest). So, the bills for those treatments get footed by the rest of us, through raised insurance premiums and higher taxes.

Now, consider that some of those emergencies, like heart attacks or strokes, could be avoided through preventative treatment, which in many cases are cheaper to implement than the emergency care. So, if you accept that hospitals are going to provide emergency treatment to everybody, the question becomes, is it cheaper to provide everybody with ongoing healthcare to avoid those emergencies, or to just stick to the status quo? I think a strong case can be made for the former.

Looking rationally at the data that's already out there, we know that our health care system here in the U.S. isn't the best one out there. What I would really like to see on this issue is for both sides to work together, rather than have one side continually muddying the water with falsehoods, and the other side being distracted with simply setting the record straight. Just imagine what could happen if that same amount of effort was put into coming up with the best possible health care plan.

Numerous typos were corrected after this entry was originally posted. Additionaly, the sentence, "And it's not as if I chose two radical fringe elements to be easy targets - one was the vice presidential candidate, and the other was the Speaker of the House," was not in the original entry.


Selling Out