Category: Skepticism

Do Superstitious Rituals Work?

By Stuart Vyse

Let us stipulate that there is no magic. Sleight-of-hand, deception, illusion, and conjuring, yes, but no “real” magic. On this, most science-minded people agree. But when it comes to superstition, there has always been an additional, less obvious question. Of course, superstitions do not have a magical effect on the world, but do they have psychological benefits? Could superstitions make difficult situations easier to handle? Furthermore, if they have an emotional or psychological benefit, could they also produce better performance in situations where skill is involved? The psychological benefits of superstitions—if they exist—would not be expected to change your luck at the roulette wheel, but perhaps an actor’s pre-performance ritual could reduce anxiety, allowing for better acting.

Despite several decades of research on superstition, these questions remained unanswered for many years. Most researchers assumed superstitions were irrational and focused their attentions on discovering why people were superstitious. It was often assumed that there might be some direct psychological benefits of superstition, but these were rarely studied.

Then in 2010 there was a great advance—or so it seemed. Researchers at the University of Cologne in Germany conducted the now famous golf ball study (Damisch et al. 2010). Participants were given a putter and asked to hit a golf ball into a cup on the carpet of a laboratory. Half the participants were handed a ball and told, “This ball has been lucky today.” The other half were told “This is your ball.” As it turned out, more than 80 percent of the German participants reported believing in the concept of good luck, and when the results were tallied, the researchers discovered that participants in the lucky ball group sank significantly more of their putts than the other group. Furthermore, Damisch et al. replicated this result with different tasks and several different luck-activating superstitions. Of course, there still was no magic, but these studies seemed to have demonstrated that believing in luck gave participants the confidence to perform better than they otherwise would. A phenomenon long speculated to be a possibility had finally been demonstrated in a laboratory setting.

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Acupuncture in cancer study reignites debate about controversial technique

By Jo Marchant

One of the largest-ever clinical trials into whether acupuncture can relieve pain in cancer patients has reignited a debate over the role of this contested technique in cancer care.

Oncologists who conducted a trial of real and sham acupuncture in 226 women at 11 different cancer centres across the United States say their results — presented on 7 December at the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium in Texas — conclude that the treatment significantly reduces pain in women receiving hormone therapy for breast cancer. They suggest it could help patients stick to life-saving cancer treatments, potentially improving survival rates. But sceptics say it is almost impossible to conduct completely rigorous double-blinded trials of acupuncture.

Interest in acupuncture has grown because of concerns over the use of opioid-based pain-relief drugs, which can have nasty side effects and are extremely addictive. Many cancer centres in the United States therefore offer complementary therapies for pain relief. Almost 90% of US National Cancer Institute-designated cancer centres suggest that patients try acupuncture, and just over 70% offer it as a treatment for side effects1. That horrifies sceptics such as Steven Novella, a neurologist at Yale University School of Medicine and founder of the blog Science-Based Medicine. Acupuncture has no scientific basis, he says; recommending it is “telling patients that magic works”. 

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The Biggest Myth About the ‘Bee Apocalypse’

By Ross Pomeroy

In 2006, an ominous term entered the public lexicon: colony collapse disorder. The mysterious, somewhat vague word describes instances where entire colonies of honeybees abruptly disappear, leaving behind their queens. Colony collapse disorder (CCD) has since fueled claims of an ongoing “bee apocalypse,” which summarizes the perilous plight of our pollinator pals.

But despite panicked claims of an apocalypse, managed honeybee colonies in the United States have actually been rising since 2008. In fact, as of April 2017, U.S. honeybee colonies are at their highest levels in more than 23 years! According toUniversity of Sussex Professor Dave Goulson, perhaps the foremost expert on bees, the trend is the same globally.

Herein lies the biggest myth of the “bee apocalypse”: that there actually is one. Fret not, bees aren’t going extinct anytime soon. Our food supply is not imminently imperiled.

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Moms, should you eat your placentas?

By Roni Dengler

Celebrity socialite Kim Kardashian West says it boosted her energy level. Mad Men’s January Jones touts it as a cure for postpartum depression. But does eating one’s placenta after birth—an apparently growing practice around the globe—actually confer any health benefits? Not really, according to the first in-depth analyses of the practice.

In two new studies, researchers conclude that new moms who consume their placentas experience no significant changes in their moods, energy levels, hormone levels, or in bonding with their new infant, when compared with moms ingesting a placebo. “It really does show that most of what’s going on, if not all, is a placebo effect,” says Mark Kristal, a behavioral neuroscientist at the State University of New York in Buffalo who has studied the practice—known as placentophagy—in other animals for more than 40 years.

Humans aren’t the only species that eat their placentas. In fact, nearly all mammals do. In rats, placentophagy spurs moms to start taking care of their pups and relieves birthing pain; both amniotic fluid and placentas contain a factor that acts as a morphine-related analgesic. But whether placentophagy confers such benefits in humans has been unclear. What is clear is that the practice is gaining in popularity. Before the 1970s, it was used occasionally in traditional Chinese medicine to treat a host of ailments in men and women. Now, there are cookbooks that offer guidelines for the storage and preparation of placenta-based smoothies and meals. Most contemporary consumers first steam and dehydrate the placenta before pulverizing it and fashioning it into a vitaminlike pill.

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Before He Was Tapped By Donald Trump, Controversial Judicial Nominee Brett J. Talley Investigated Paranormal Activity

By Gideon Resnick and Sam Stein

Brett J. Talley, nominated by President Donald Trump to the Federal District Court in Montgomery, Alabama, has never tried a case, is married to a White House lawyer, and has been dubbed as unqualified by the American Bar Association.

He also has a fervent interest in investigating and writing about paranormal activities.

On his questionnaire for the Senate Judiciary Committee, a copy of which was provided to The Daily Beast, Talley says that he was part of The Tuscaloosa Paranormal Research Group from 2009-2010. The group, according to its website, searches for the truth “of the paranormal existence” in addition to helping “those who may be living with paranormal activity that can be disruptive and/or traumatic.”

David Higdon, the group’s founder and later a co-author with Talley told The Daily Beast that he couldn’t remember specific cases they may have worked on together.

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Julie Payette dares to be interesting with comments on climate, astrology, and divine intervention

By Aaron Wherry

Gov. Gen. Julie Payette said a few interesting things on Wednesday night. And if that’s interesting it’s because governors general generally tend to avoid saying particularly interesting things.

Addressing a science conference in Ottawa, Payette argued for the need for greater public acceptance and knowledge of science. In doing so, she made dismissive references to astrology, the notion of “divine intervention” in the creation of life and those who doubt the scientific consensus that humans are significantly responsible for the warming planet.

Gov. Gen. Julie Payette addresses science conference.

Such stuff is probably not out of place at a science conference. And Payette is an individual of science, a former astronaut and engineer. But she is also now the governor general, Canada’s unelected and non-partisan de facto head of state  — a unifying figure and an impartial guardian of the democratic order who is supposed to exist above and beyond politics.

And that is where things get interesting.

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The Economist The Economist asks: Richard Dawkins

Anne McElvoy and Jan Piotrowski ask one of the world’s best-known evolutionary biologists whether science can guide us through a turbulent world of post-truth. Can there really be an objective truth, or will our existing biases win out?

Lay Off ‘Pot Cures Cancer’ Claims, FDA Warns

By Sara G. Miller

Medical marijuana may help with several health conditions, but it’s certainly not a cure for cancer. Now, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is cracking down on companies that claim their cannabis products can get rid of cancer.

The FDA issued warning letters to four companies that sell products containing cannabidiol (CBD) and claim the ingredient can treat or cure cancer, according to an FDA statement released yesterday (Nov. 1). CBD is a compound found in marijuana, but unlike another compound in the plant called tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), CBD doesn’t cause psychoactive effects.

CBD is sold in products such as oil drops, teas, capsules, syrups and lotions, the FDA says.

The four companies — Green Roads Health, Natural Alchemist, That’s Natural! Marketing & Consulting, and Stanley Brothers Social Enterprises LLC — sold, in total, more than 25 different types of products with unsubstantiated medical claims, according to the FDA.

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