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Alternative Medicine, Impact Threats, Abrupt Climate Change, and Efficient Energy

Special Report

Matt Nisbet

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 22.6, November / December 1998

23 Countries at World Congress

These were the countries represented at the World Skeptics Congress in Heidelberg:

World Skeptics Congress Convenes with Participants from Five Continents

Here is a brief review of several of the sessions at the World Skeptics Congress. More reports will appear in future issues.

At Heidelberg University, on the bank of the Neckar River, some 300 skeptics, scientists, experts, and academics from North America, Europe, Australia, Asia, and South America convened to discuss and critically evaluate the latest claims of the paranormal and pseudoscience and consider some crucial issues in real science.

Opening the World Skeptics Congress, Paul Kurtz, professor emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo and founding chairman of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), declared: “Skeptics want to focus on inquiry, not doubt. We simply insist that there be sufficient evidence, rational coherence, or replicable experimental confirmation of claims and that hypotheses introduced undergo rigorous peer review and corroboration before they are accepted.”

Leading medical researchers’ comments on the perceived growth of alternative medicine in North America and Europe highlighted half-day plenary sessions on topics that included millennial doomsday predictions and a workshop on critical thinking.

Alternative Medicine Studies Flawed, Politicized

North American and European medical experts emphasized a serious problem: the public is not getting scientifically valid information on alternative therapies. From poor or biased experimental design to “absolute fakery,” Wallace Sampson, M.D., clinical professor of medicine at Stanford University and editor of the Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine, outlined reasons why many studies allegedly proving alternative therapies are flawed. “The best-quality papers and studies on such popular alternative therapies as homeopathy and acupuncture show little effectiveness, while the worst-quality papers and studies show the most effects.”

Sampson pointed out that promoters of alternative medicine and the media often misquote and misreport the findings of the latest studies. As examples, Sampson said that, contrary to popular claims, alternative therapy has not increased in popularity over the last two decades. He refuted the notion that many alternative therapies are more cost-effective than proven scientific treatments. He pointed to insurance-industry studies that show chiropractic care — often cited as the “most effective treatment for back pain” — is the second-most expensive category of care provider, next to neurosurgery.

Willem Betz, professor of medicine at the Free University of Brussels, Belgium, echoed Sampson’s comments when he discussed the state of alternative medicine in Europe. Betz, a member of the European Committee of Science and Technology, said the evaluation of alternative medicine on the continent “is not science, but politics.” The alternative medicine industry uses biased polling results to push alternative medicine acceptance. “Their figures are suspect in promoting alternative therapies, but their math is conventional when billing their patients.” Betz described the alternative medicine industry as now actively focusing on Eastern European markets.

Psychologist Barry Beyerstein (of Simon Fraser University) reviewed the reasons people believe in bogus therapies. Beyerstein says that alternative medicine’s enduring popularity stems from widespread public scientific illiteracy, aggressive alternative medicine-industry marketing, New Age faddishness, inadequate media criticism, a growing distrust of authority that includes the scientific and medical establishment, and an anti-doctor backlash. “Natural is considered safe. Though I like to remind people that tobacco is a naturally occurring substance,” Beyerstein told the audience.

Ways in which purveyors of alternative therapies fool themselves include the human will to believe, the ubiquitous placebo effect, erroneous equations of correlation with causation, overemphasis of anecdotal evidence, naturally occurring self-healing, misdiagnosis, and the post hoc fallacy of automatically assuming that treatments or nostrums triggered subsequent recovery. “Many of these are confounding effects, examples of the classic ‘disease of the week' misdiagnosis, and the failings of human logic.”

The medical experts emphasized that the evaluation and eventual acceptance of alternative therapies necessitate adequate sample size, random assignment of patients, placebo-controlled trials, proper statistical treatment of data, long-term follow-up, and multiple replication of studies.

Astronomer Says Cosmic Impact Threat Likely

The recent Hollywood films Deep Impact and Armageddon have highlighted the threat from cosmic collisions, but the findings of science emphasize the need for increased funding for identifying near-Earth objects (NEOs), said James McGaha, retired USAF Major and director of the Grasslands Observatory of Arizona. “The threat from cosmic impact is real and hazardously dismissed by the public and decision-makers,” said McGaha.

Some 300 identified NEOs may be on potential collision paths with Earth, but there are an estimated 9,000 unknown NEOs of 0.5 km or greater in size. The warning time before collision of a previously unknown NEO would be less than eighty days for a comet and less than thirty days for an asteroid. The impact of a 2 km NEO with Earth would result in catastrophic earthquakes, tsunamis, sun-blocking clouds of dust and ash, drastic drops in temperature, global crop failure, and widespread starvation. More than 25 percent of Earth’s human population would perish.

McGaha said further funding and research needs to be devoted to locating NEOs and developing/testing means of diversion. Currently the U.S. government devotes just $1.5 million to NEO research, with NASA recently approving a marginal increase to $3 million for next year. Testing diversion methods is of special importance, noted McGaha. Once a NEO is within a close enough range to Earth, no diversion method will save lives.

David Morrison, CSICOP Fellow and director of space at NASA Ames Research Center, is part of a team of scientists lobbying Congress for funding for a much-needed “Space Guard” project that would fund six telescopes around the globe to search for and find all NEOs. (For more on the NEO threat, visit the Web site

McGaha said the threat from NEOs and sparse budgeting for science make a recent report by the Society for Scientific Exploration advocating government support for UFO research (SI, September/October) appear ridiculous. “Why fund mystery-mongering about UFOs when NEOs are real threats in our skies that go almost totally unheeded?” he asked.

Experts Review Global Climate Threats, Energy-Saving Solutions

In Friday afternoon presentations, two experts, one from academia, the other from business, forecast possible futures for Earth’s climate. William Calvin, a neurophysiologist at the University of Washington, outlined the potential threat of what he calls the “The Great Climate Flip-Flop,” an abrupt cooling of Earth that could result in widespread crop failure, significant landscape change, and genocidal battles among nations for food resources.

“No serious scientist wants to be seen as a prophet of doom, but this is not a prediction, this is history” said Calvin, referring to past climate flip-flops in Earth’s history. Calvin first became interested in the topic through studying climate’s influence on human brain development.

The most dangerous result of global warming could be the triggering of a modern ice age, says Calvin. Contrary to popular belief, global temperature change can be fairly quick and drastic. Earth could be due for another plummet in temperature, a change that could be sparked by the effect of global warming on currents that form a “heat engine” for the north Atlantic.

Much of the warming effect of northern latitudes, including Europe, is created by a powerful North Atlantic current that flows from the tropics to Greenland. The current endows Europe, a continent that shares the same latitude with Canada, with a temperate enough climate to support a population of 650 million.

Drawing on research by Columbia University geochemist Wallace Broecker, Calvin described the North Atlantic current as a conveyer belt, delivering warm surface water to northern regions. Salt-heavy, the current reaches northern latitudes near Greenland, sinks, and travels south to be recycled in waters as far away as the Pacific.

A greenhouse-generated warming effect can cause cooling by dumping large amounts of fresh water into the ocean, and interrupting the conveyer belt flow of water in the North Atlantic. Under greenhouse warming conditions, large amounts of fresh water enter the ocean through increased high-latitude rainfall and melting ice. Shifts in the ice flow can also cause blockages in fjords and other waterways, resulting in the buildup and then sudden release of millions of gallons of freshwater into the Atlantic.

“We cannot avoid trouble by simply cutting down on our current contribution to the greenhouse warming trend. We need to identify the important feedback effects that control climate and ocean currents,” warned Calvin. Possible global cooling prevention strategies include opening channels through fjord ice dams, seeding clouds to deliver rain away from North Atlantic areas of sinking water, regulating the Mediterranean Sea’s salty outflow, and digging a wide sea-level Panama Canal.

Why has discussion of the Climate Flip-flop scenario not received greater attention in the media? Calvin was asked. He observed wryly that “Hollywood catastrophe movies co-opt the marketplace for discussion of possible futures.”

A top advisor to President Clinton on energy policy and global warming, Thomas R. Casten, president and CEO of New York-based Trigen Energy Corporation, outlined his outlook on defeating the greenhouse gas problem through improved energy efficiency. Citing as evidence a correlation between increases in world population and increases in CO2 gas and water vapor, Casten declared that “there is a greenhouse gas problem. I think humankind is rolling some very big dice, and the question is what do we do?”

Casten is a member of the CSICOP Board of Directors and Executive Council.

The U.S. contribution to CO2 gas emission equals 25 percent of the world total, and Casten noted that U.S. waste in power generation exceeds Japan’s total fuel use. “There is market failure across the world. Power generation is drastically inefficient. The best environmental strategy ever devised is efficiency: Don't burn the fuel.”

Current U.S. energy efficiency is at 33 percent, with the country reaching peak energy efficiency in 1959. In comparison, Denmark operates at 50 percent efficiency. “It is an appalling record when you look at advances in computing, jet planes, and other technologies.”

Casten pointed to government protection of utility monopolies as causing disincentives to improved energy use and production. “We've protected our companies from competitiveness, and you get what you reward. If you don't reward the energy industry, you won't get efficiency.” Casten said that new energy regulations should emphasize input versus performance standards in efficiency and pollution. Government efforts also have to target phasing-out and cleaning up decades-old power plants. Many of the older plants have grandfathered-in emissions compliance, allowing them to be more than 100 times more polluting than new facilities.

To reduce costs, Casten recommended that barriers to competition be eliminated. But since increasing competition will not induce companies to seek optimal environmental solutions, regulations need to guide power companies with efficiency standards. Finally, Casten suggested that megawatt hours of electricity have to be less and less dependent on fossil fuels.

Trigen Energy uses trigeneration of electricity, steam, and cooled water to build power plants that are 91 percent efficient, Casten said. The company, serving more than 1,500 customers at 22 locations in North America, provides heating, cooling, and electricity with one half the fossil fuel and one half the pollution of conventional generation.

Matt Nisbet

Matthew Nisbet is Associate Professor of Communication at Northeastern University and a CSI technical consultant.