Saturday, October 29, 2011

Weekend Post - A malaria vaccine?

Is it possible that we might one day live in a world without malaria? Nobody knows but we’re now a step closer.

Last week it was announced that following an 18-month clinical trial involving 15,000 African children an experimental vaccine appears to reduce the risk of contracting malaria by half. That’s not a cure but it’s an excellent start.

The potential benefit is enormous. Every year perhaps a million people around the world die from malaria, most of them African children. Anything we can do to reduce that death toll must be worth the effort. Even if we only halve the number of victims that’s half a million survivors.

This vaccine works by stopping the spread and multiplication of the malaria parasite after the victim has been bitten, by stimulating the body’s immune response and preventing it from getting a foothold in the liver.

The vaccine was based on a quarter of a century’s research by a GlaxoSmithKline team led by a research scientist called Joe Cohen. This is the stuff that Nobel Prizes are made of. A career’s research devoted to something that is so overwhelmingly good, that has such potential benefit for humanity and that can possibly save millions of lives.

I can’t help but wonder how certain people are going to react when they learn that this research was undertaken by a drug company. Not a high-brow academic in a university but an employee of GlaxoSmithKline, a company that some people will have you believe is the corporate Anti-Christ. I’m no defender of the pharmaceutical industry, they’ve certainly got a stained record but that doesn’t mean everything they do is wrong. This is a great example of how an absolute and uncomplicated good thing can come from an industry we’re free to criticise and condemn. Every so often though we have to give them some serious gratitude.

It’s happened before of course. One of the least known but most important statements ever made in human history was when the World Health Organisation declared in 1980 that “the world and its peoples have won freedom from smallpox”. A massive, worldwide campaign of vaccination and infection control over several decades eventually removed smallpox from the face of the planet. This disease killed hundreds of millions of people and it’s eradication is perhaps the greatest, practical contributions to humanity that science has ever offered. If you ever encounter one of those deluded scaremongers who say that vaccination is dangerous you need only say the word “Smallpox” and you’ve won.

One of the most disappointing things I’ve seen over the last few decades is the anti-vaccination movement. I have no hesitation in calling them either deluded or liars and some of them are both. Children have DIED because of the drops in vaccination rates around the world. Not just in the Western World where measles reappeared but here in Botswana where certain groups took what is politely referred to as a “faith position” against vaccinations. It’s not just their children we should feel sorry for it’s the rest of the community as well. One of the key objectives in fighting communicable disease is “herd” or “community immunity”. A disease like measles can’t spread as easily if most of the population are immune to it. “Chains of infection” can’t form if there are only very few people with no immunity. The more people there are who haven’t developed, or been given, immunity by vaccination the more likely the few who haven’t are to get the disease.

Malaria is different though, it’s not passed from human to human and eradicating malaria will require a different approach. However, a vaccination to give people immunity would be such an amazing step forward. The vaccine isn’t going to be with us very soon either. Scientists have earned the hard way that these things can’t be rushed. However the researchers hope that it’ll hopefully be available by 2015. Then we can really celebrate.


For a summary of the research see the Reuters story here. There's a comprehensive description of malaria from the Center for Disease Control here.

For some background on smallpox and why it's eradication is a reason for celebration see the Wikipedia page and the various links it offers. Anti-vaccination campaigners should be forced to look at the pictures of smallpox victims and imagine they show their children. For a scathing description of the loathsome anti-vaccination movement see the Skeptics Dictionary article here.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Weekend Post - Science is critical

Please forgive the wordplay but science really IS “critical”. I believe it’s critical, in the sense that it’s vitally important, because it saves, prolongs and improves our lives. If it hadn’t been for science we’d still live to our 30s if we were lucky and most of us over the age of 40 would be in constant pain and probably wishing we were dead. We have the benefit of modern technology that allows us to communicate better than ever before, educate ourselves and entertain ourselves in a way that our grandparents could never have imagined. Actually, let me correct that. My grandmother CAN imagine it, she’s still alive and kicking at the age of 93, thanks to the benefits of science and medicine.

Science is also critical in another sense. It’s critical because it criticises. Not in a negative, whining sense, but in the best sense of the word. Criticism is about weighing the good and the bad aspects of something and science is best at that.

Unfortunately there are just too many areas of falsehood where science is needed to dispel lies and deceit.

Homeopathy is a good example. Despite there being absolutely no evidence whatsoever that it does anything, many people still swear by it. Can they all be wrong? Yes, they most certainly can. To begin with it’s simply not plausible. Homeopathic remedies are based on two simple ideas. Firstly there’s the idea that a dose of something that causes similar symptoms to a disease will cure that disease. This makes no sense whatsoever and is simply not true. Then there’s the second, even less plausible idea, that by repeatedly diluting the “remedy” the effect of the remedy actually becomes stronger.

The biggest problem homeopaths face is explaining quite how much they dilute the remedy. They typically begin by diluting the original remedy to one hundredth of it’s strength in water. Then that diluted amount will again be diluted to one hundredth so that only one ten thousandth of the original strength remains. Then again and again it will be diluted to one hundredth of each diluted strength, sometimes up to 60 times. Please don’t try to do the maths, your calculator can’t cope with numbers that big but others have worked out that many homeopathic remedies are so diluted that not a single atom of the original substance remains in the “remedy” you buy. Not one.

The homeopathic industry, when these facts became clear, suggested instead that somehow the water has a “memory” of the substance it originally contained. In 1997 a French researcher, Jean Benveniste actually published a paper in the respected science journal Nature, suggesting that water could indeed do this. That would have been fine if his research hadn’t later been shown to be fatally flawed, used biased researchers and having discarded the results that weren’t what they wanted to see. So we can forget that.

In fact, and this bit IS science, there are circumstances in which liquid water can retain certain structures and forms. Water molecules can form temporary bonds but these last no more than (take a deep breath) fifty femtoseconds which is fifty quadrillionths of a second. That’s a millionth of a billionth of a second. Even if there was any truth to this silliness no “memory” of a useless homeopathic remedy would last until the pills are in the store’s shelves.

Because of all this catastrophic implausibility homeopathy remedies don’t even need to be tested to say that they’re worthless but the scientific method isn’t as careless as that. Homeopathic “remedies” HAVE been tested many, many times and guess what? Not one of them works. Of course people THINK they work but what’s working is the placebo effect, the slight feeling of being better you get by doing something, perhaps anything.

The problem with homeopathic or any other so-called complimentary remedies isn’t that they do nothing. The problem is that they are often taken instead of medicines that DO actually do something. In the UK recently there was a major scandal because some homeopaths were recommending their silly products as preventing malaria to travellers to places like Botswana. Someone could have died. Who knows, perhaps someone did.

Science has two main roles. To give the world new ideas based on evidence and research but also to help us cast aside those ideas that don’t work any more, and probably never did. We’ve given up the belief that the Earth is the center of the universe and that your star sign predicts your future. It’s the same for homeopathy. It’s long past the time when that sort of superstition should be put aside and replaced with something that does actually work.


For a summary of homeopathy you should start with the Wikipedia entry here.

If you want a good summary of it's logical, scientific and common sense failings see the Skeptic's Dictionary entry here. There's also an excellent summary of the whole "memory of water" claptrap by Steven Novella here.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Faster than light? No.

It looks like the the scientists in Italy who thought they found neutrinos travelling faster than light might have made a mistake. The irony is that the theory they thought they might have undermined actually explains the effect they saw.

Speedy neutrino mystery likely solved, relativity safe after all

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Weekend Post - Healthier than ever

A few months I was parking my car at my kid’s school. A young guy approached me as I left the car and asked if he could talk with me. I had a few minutes to spare and he seemed polite. I didn’t think he was going to mug me, I suspected he was trying to sell something.

He asked whether I was worried about my children’s diet. I told him that I wasn’t particularly worried which seemed to surprise him. I told him that I thought my kids have a fairly healthy diet. They probably get through a few too many chips but they’re just as likely to be found munching an apple. Ignoring this he started a lecture on the evils of “processed” and “convenience” food. His claim was that the chemicals, additives and junk in all this evil food was causing global ill-health and premature death. He suggested that if we eat organic, healthier food (and buy his pointless herbal concoctions) these problems would go away. He asked me why I think people lived longer in the past than they do now?

For a moment my brain stopped working and I stood there speechless. Was he serious? Did he really believe that in the past people were healthier than we are today?

He was, of course, comprehensively, completely and utterly wrong. We are the most fortunate group of people that has ever lived. No population is as lucky as we are today. No population in the history of the world has lived as long as we do or been as healthy.

Yes, I mean even in Botswana. I’m not just talking about places like Japan, Iceland and Australia where people seem to go on and on, I mean here too. Despite what we heard a few years ago, when the impact of HIV and AIDS was the centre of our attention, as a nation we have achieved a staggering amount.

Look at the facts. According to the figures, a baby born in Botswana in 2004 was expected to live, on average and if the mortality rate stayed the same as that in 2004 throughout his or her life, to the age of 31. Babies born now can be expected, if our much reduced mortality rate remains the same as it is now, almost to 60. And that’s the life expectancy at birth. If a kid survives the first few years of it’s life it can be expected to last a lot longer than 60.

Of course I’m not denying that HIV will continue to have an impact. However the success of anti-retroviral drugs is plain to see. We probably all know someone who we’ve seen close to the end but who is now thriving and enjoying life to the full because of the medication they’ve taking.

Perhaps my favourite statistic about the benefits of medicine involves our success with the Prevention of Mother-To-Child Transmission program. Normally a HIV+ pregnant mother has roughly a 40% risk of passing HIV to her child during childbirth. After PMTCT the risk dropped to lower than 4% and it’s dropped even further subsequently. Science and medicine did that.

So ARVs are extending the lifespan of our HIV+ siblings but what about diet? Wasn’t my car park friend right about the poisons and toxins in our food? No, he was wrong about that as well.

There is, sit down before you read this, no scientific evidence that food produced in traditional ways is any better for you than food produced using “artificial” fertilisers and pesticides. None whatsoever. In fact there is a lot of evidence that conventional fertilisers pose a very significant risk to human health. That’s not surprising when you think about it. Do you really want traces of raw cow poo on your fruit and vegetables?

There isn’t much evidence that the reverse is true either. Food produced using modern techniques is no better or worse for you than the traditional methods but one thing HAS changed massively. Food is now produced much more efficiently. The world’s population has almost reached 7 billion and we’re still producing food to feed everyone. Of course there are problems with getting it to the right people at the right time but that’s always been the case.

So here’s my suggestion for the week. Rather than pretending there was a distant age when things were better let’s look back and remember the massive proportion of children that never made it to their 5th birthday, the number of people who died of horrible diseases in their 20s and 30s and the endless sequence of famines. Let’s remember that in ancient Rome life expectancy was less than 30 and it didn’t get much better until the beginning of the 20th century.

Let’s also remember what helped us achieve all of. Science and medicine.


For a comparison of life expectancy data from around the world Wikipedia is a good starting point. It's also worth understanding what "life expectancy" actually means as well.

For details of Botswana's current life expectancy figures see here for data from the CIA World Factbook. Take a look also at the graph for death rate.

For a story on the impact of PMTCT see here.

A starting point for thinking about organic food is the Skeptoid podcast, in particular the episode on organic food here. This is where I found this piece from the American Council on Science and Health. Not worried about poo on your food? The US Food and Drug Administration are.

And that figure of 7 billion people? We'll get there later this month.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Weekend Post - Faster than light?

There might be a revolution in science any moment now. Or maybe not.

A few weeks ago Italian scientists said that they thought they’d broken one of the fundamental laws of nature. They claimed that they had managed to force a beam of particles to travel faster than the speed of light. Admittedly only very slightly faster than light, but even a little bit would have been enough. Their beam of neutrinos had travelled all the way from the CERN laboratory in Geneva, a trip of 730km, across the border into Italy and they arrived 60 billionths of a second earlier than light would have covered the same distance. If this is true, if something really can travel faster than light, faster than 300,000 kilometers per second, then our understanding of the universe has been incomplete. After the results were announced the international media was full of headlines asking "Was Einstein wrong?"

If true, this won’t be the first time that a revolution like this has occurred in science. When Einstein first proposed his laws of relativity there was an enormous backlash against them because they contradicted the theories of Isaac Newton and the scientific establishment of the time couldn’t accept that. However, a few experiments later it was found that Einstein was right and that Newton was out-dated. Of course that doesn’t mean Newton’s theories and equations aren’t relevant, they still are in almost all circumstances. Engineers building bridges, scientists launching spacecraft, even soldiers firing guns all use Newton’s laws and they work just fine for them. It’s only in extreme circumstances that Newton’s laws stop working and Einstein’s have to be used instead.

What might have happened in Italy is something similar. Nobody is actually saying that Einstein’s theories were wrong, it’s just that they might have been only 99% correct, they might not explain everything, there might be things that his theories don’t predict or explain.

Or, and this is much more likely, the results from Italy might just be wrong. To their credit the Italian scientists have published their results and have given the international scientific community the opportunity to tear them to pieces. That’s the way the scientific process works. You have an idea, you test it, you publish your results and your colleagues do their best to find a flaw in what you’ve done. It’s not a competition, it’s just a rigorous way of testing ideas. Unlike supernatural belief systems, criticism and testing are welcomed as ways to get closer to the truth.

One of the least well understood aspects of the scientific method is that there’s a difference between facts and explanations. Gravity, for instance, is a fact. If you’re unsure, feel free to lean too far out of a top floor window and in the next few seconds you’ll be convinced. Similarly evolution is a fact. It’s been seen in a variety of quickly reproducing animals over several generations. It can be seen in fruit flies, moths and fish. These aren’t denied by anyone who has seen the facts. They don’t need any more proof. Things fall to the ground, planets are attracted to stars, animals gradually change their form to adapt to their environment over time.

What’s differs are the possible explanations. With gravity, Newton just proposed that there was an attraction between bodies but he couldn’t explain how that might happen, he just came up with rather wonderful equations to explain and predict it. But those ideas later turned out to be very slightly imperfect. That’s when Einstein came along with the idea that the structure of space and time was curved by matter. That was a better explanation of everything and filled the gaps in Newton’s explanation. A step forward. Likewise with evolution. Initially we were told that species didn’t naturally change, they were static. Then biologists began to notice what they called “speciation”, that what once identical species seemed to have changed their form to adapt to different environments. Everyone who’s seen the evidence agrees that species adapt over time, the evidence for that is clear. Then Darwin came along with his explanation, natural selection. So far, that’s the best explanation we have for the variety and adaptation of species, humans included. Maybe one day another scientist will come up with an improved explanation. So far there doesn’t seem to be a need, Darwin’s theory appears to be holding out perfectly well, just like Einstein’s.

That’s the wonderful thing about science. Whether the Italian results are right or wrong, scientists will be happy. If Einstein’s ideas continue to adequately explain things then we’re happy. If however, there’s something his theories can’t explain? Fantastic, the universe is even more marvelous and complex than we thought already.


There's a good summary of the experiment in Nature. You can see the reaction to this story by doing a Google search like this.

You can see a summary of Newton and his theories here and of Einstein here. The experiments by Sir Arthur Eddington that provided the first experimental support are discussed in Eddington's biography here.

For a summary of the scientific method see here. If you're feeling a bit more adventurous read this on Karl Popper and "empirical falsification" as the basis of science. Learn that and you understand it all.

For background on Darwin and natural selection as his explanation for evolution see here.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Weekend Post - Radiation


It’s a horrible word, isn’t it? It conjures up images of the burnt victims of Hiroshima, their skin peeling, waiting for radiation sickness to kill them. More recently the nuclear disasters at Chernobyl and Fukushima in Japan brought back those images. But how dangerous were these disasters? How many people actually died as a result of both these accidents?

This is where things get difficult. It’s impossible to say with certainty with any cancer victim that a particular thing caused their cancer. However you can look at the number of deaths that’s more than might be expected. In the initial explosion at Chernobyl 25 years ago, 57 people were killed but subsequently the only noticeable effect has been a dramatic increase in the numbers of children with thyroid cancer. The good news is that thyroid cancer is easily and successfully treatable and so far only 15 people have died from thyroid cancer in the area. While that’s 15 tragic deaths too many it’s not much more than would be expected anyway. Similarly there appears to have been no increase in birth defects or other cancers. Nobody is going to say that the radiation leak was a good thing but the effect is much, much lower than everyone feared.

Regarding Fukushima it’s really too early to say but the initial number of deaths was minimal and those few deaths were nothing to do with radiation. It’s impossible to predict future deaths but the news is not nearly as bad as was suggested by the press at the time.

On the subject of the danger of nuclear power production you also have to consider the dangers of other ways of producing power. According to the American Cancer Society between 50,000 and 100,000 Americans might die each year from the pollution caused by conventional, mainly coal-based, power stations. That’s a risk we should all be worrying about.

But what about other types of radiation? Are they dangerous? Well, that depends. “Radiation” covers a number of things. Ask a scientist and you’ll discover that radiation is divided into two main categories: ionizing and non-ionizing. Ionizing radiation has enough energy to ionize, or break down atoms. It’s ionizing radiation that causes radiation burns by breaking down the atoms in skin cells. Ionizing radiation can also break down the atoms in DNA that might result in cancer. It’s this type of radiation that is often released by radioactive sources like those found in nuclear power stations. However, as we’ve found from the experience at Chernobyl the risk isn’t nearly as high as we all fear.

The other type of radiation, the non-ionizing type, typically has much less energy, not enough to actually damage any atoms it might meet. That doesn’t mean that it can’t cause damage but the types you and I are likely to encounter are almost all perfectly safe because the energy levels and frequencies are so incredibly low.

The best example of non-ionizing radiation is the one we see every day, just by opening our eyes. Visible light is all around us all the time, even at night, it’s what we use to see things. Visible light is not ionizing. It doesn’t have enough energy to break atoms. A common misunderstanding is about sunburn which people often believe is caused by the light of the sun. In fact it’s the ultra-violet light from the sun that is ionizing, that causes the burns.

What about the most controversial of all the non-ionizing radiations: the radio waves that are used to transmit cellphone calls? Let’s start with a simple fact. The radio waves used by cellphones and cellphone masts use a frequency that is 10 million times lower than the level required to ionize. Unless radiation can ionize atoms it simply can’t cause cancer. This isn’t an assumption, it’s just physics. The radio waves used by your cellphone are as safe as the radio waves used by your chosen radio station.

But what about that World Health Organization report that was published earlier this year that everyone read, the one that said there WAS a risk from cellphones and that they might cause cancer? Unfortunately their report was selectively quoted. They reported just one study that suggested such a link but the papers neglected to report the vast number of other studies that showed there was no relationship between cellphone use and cancers of the brain or central nervous system. Perhaps the most telling fact is that the global levels of such cancers hasn’t changed a bit since the world started using cellphones. In fact the only widely accepted risk from cellphone use is falling in a fountain while texting. Do a search on YouTube for “fountain texting” and see if you can stop laughing.

The lesson is not to believe what you read in newspapers. Do some research, be skeptical and just because someone says it, that doesn’t mean it’s true. And yes, that DOES go for me as well.



My initial source for this was an excellent episode entitled of the Skeptoid podcast by Brian Dunning called "Rethinking Nuclear Power" [transcript here]. It was there that I found the report from the American Cancer Society which suggests the number of deaths from fossil-fuel energy production.

For a general overview of radiation see the Wikipedia page on radiation, in particular the distinction between ionizing and non-ionizing radiation.

The WHO report on cell phone radiation effects is here and includes the following paragraph:
"A large number of studies have been performed over the last two decades to assess whether mobile phones pose a potential health risk. To date, no adverse health effects have been established as being caused by mobile phone use."
There's also a good summary of the facts on the Cancer Research UK site here. Read carefully the section on Category 2B risks (which currently includes cellphones). They describe this group as:
"a bit of a catch-all category, and includes everything from carpentry to chloroform."
For a good overview see the always useful Skeptics Dictionary. In particular see the page on electro-magnetic fields and radiation here and comments on the WHO story here.

Regarding the coverage of the cell phone mast in Mochudi that was destroyed by an outbreak of mass hysteria see the Mmegi story here. See also the appearance of the charlatan called Barrie Trower here. Barrie Trower is not all that he seems.

To see what can happen when you text while walking click here but remember that if you laugh at someone else's misfortune you're a bad person.


In the printed version of this article I referred to the American Cancer "Association", not Society.