Daily Archives: November 23, 2010

County Takes Control of Public Forum for Religious Displays

Originally posted at Dispatches from the Culture Wars: Ed Brayton writes on the recent decision by the county of Chester to take control of what is displayed on county-courthouse grounds in an effort to prevent non-religious displays from being erected.

The commission of Chester County, Pennsylvania has voted to take control over what has until now been an open forum for community groups to place their own holiday displays on county courthouse grounds. From now on, the commission will decide what kind of holiday displays to put up — and of course, they will exclude anything that is non-religious, which was the whole point of taking control.

They’re upset because the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia has for the past few years put up a display called the Tree of Knowledge that promotes science and reason along with Christian and Jewish displays. Here’s what the new policy says:

The resolution adopted calls for the county to “erect and maintain its own seasonal holiday displays to celebrate the traditions of the holidays” to support the troops, celebrate peace, and promote commerce. The displays, it stated, would conform to “constitutionally permitted … applicable law.”

The commission has yet to approve any display, but this is quite predictable. They will have a manger scene and other religious symbols along with some reindeer, Santa, candy canes and the like, and perhaps a menorah. That will bring it into compliance with the Supreme Court’s bizarre and convoluted jurisprudence on such displays. And most importantly, it won’t include anything from those evil heathens who actually thought they had equal rights.

“Free speech is the issue here,” said Carol Roper of West Chester, a member of the Freethought Society. “This is about you deciding whether atheists are people, too or whether you can silence us.” …Downey and Roper suggested that the county would now be able to promote Christian and Jewish displays, but to ignore the “non-theist” display of its “Tree of Knowledge,” which had been erected at the courthouse for the past three years, by substituting holiday decorations for their informational presentation.

Farrell’s resolution was “a ruse” to eliminate speech the commissioners do not like, Roper said.

“The good Christian group is determined to ride us out of town on a rail,” she declared.


Yep. They shut down a public forum that allowed all groups to express their views so they could make sure one of those groups could no longer do so. And they succeeded. I’d like to see a suit filed here.



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Bill Clinton’s Diet

Originally posted on Science-Based Medicine: Harriet Hall examines studies on the benefits of a vegan diet.  These studies tend to stand on rather shaky ground.

Bill Clinton loved hamburgers from McDonald’s. He used to eat a typical American high calorie, high fat, meat-based diet. No more. He had a heart attack and a quadruple bypass in 2004. Recurrent blockages required placement of two stents in February 2010. This got his attention and he went on a strict new diet, losing 24 pounds to get back down to what he weighed in high school.

He is now a vegan.

I live on beans, legumes, vegetables, fruit. I drink a protein supplement every morning — no dairy, I drink almond milk mixed in with fruit and a protein powder so I get the protein for the day when I start the day up.

I did all this research, and I saw that 82 percent of the people since 1986 who have gone on a plant-based, no dairy, no meat of any kind, no chicken, no turkey — I eat very little fish, once in a while I’ll have a little fish — if you can do it, 82 percent of people have begun to heal themselves.


Dean Ornish

The 82% apparently refers to this 1998 study by Dean Ornish. He started with 48 patients with angiographically documented coronary artery disease and randomized 28 of them to an experimental group (a 10% fat vegetarian diet, stopping smoking, stress management training, and moderate exercise) and 20 to a usual-care group. Only 20 experimental and 15 control patients completed the 5 year study. The diameter of the coronary arterial stenoses improved by 3.1 percent in the experimental group and worsened by 11.8 percent in the usual care group. Overall, 82% of experimental-group patients had an average change towards regression. They had about half as many cardiac events: 25 in the experimental group versus 45 in the usual care group.  None of the experimental subjects were on any cholesterol-lowering medication, but the usual care group allowed cholesterol-lowering prescriptions, and after 5 years the LDL levels of both groups were the same. In short, only 20 patients were on the diet, and it was not a trial of diet alone, but of intensive lifestyle management involving several other interventions. The study has not been replicated.

T. Colin Campbell

In addition to Ornish, Clinton’s other gurus are T. Colin Campbell (author of The China Study), and Caldwell Esselstyn, author of Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease.

Campbell did not study any interventions. He collected epidemiologic data from China and based on those observations, his own laboratory studies, and his own interpretation of the medical literature, he claimed that we could prevent or cure most disease (heart disease, cancer, diabetes, autoimmune diseases, bone, kidney, eye and other diseases) by eating a whole foods plant-based diet, drastically reducing our protein intake, and avoiding meat and dairy products entirely. Critics have questioned whether the data support his conclusions and a re-examination of his raw data found serious flaws in his methodology and his reasoning.

Caldwell Esselstyn

Esselstyn did an uncontrolled interventional study of patients with angiographically documented severe coronary artery disease who were not hypertensive, diabetics, or smokers. He wanted to test how effective one physician could be in helping patients achieve a total cholesterol level of 150 mg/dL or less, and what effect maintaining that level would have on coronary disease. Patients agreed to follow a plant-based diet with <10% of calories derived from fat. They were asked to eliminate oil, dairy products (except skim milk and no-fat yogurt), fish, fowl, and meat. They were encouraged to eat grains, legumes, lentils, vegetables, and fruit. Cholesterol-lowering medication was individualized.

There were originally 24 patients: 6 dropped out early on, 18 maintained the diet, one of these 18 died of an arrhythmia and 11 completed a mean of 5.5 years followup. Repeat angiography showed that of 25 coronary artery lesions, 11 regressed and 14 remained stable. At 10 years, 11 patients remained: 6 continued the diet and had no further coronary events; 5 resumed their pre-study diet and reported 10 coronary events.

In a 12 year followup report, the 6 who had maintained the diet at 10 years and the 5 who had gone off it and had coronary events had apparently somehow morphed into 17 patients who had remained adherent to the diet and who had had no coronary events. I couldn’t understand the discrepancy in numbers; perhaps readers can explain it to me if I missed something.

Esselstyn has claimed that

A plant-based diet with less than 10% fat will prevent coronary disease from developing, halt the progress of existing disease, and even reverse the disease in many patients.

He also says

If you eat to save your heart, you eat to save yourself from other diseases of nutritional extravagance: from strokes, hypertension, obesity, osteoporosis, adult-onset diabetes, and possibly senile mental impairment, as well. You gain protection from a host of other ailments that have been linked to dietary factors, including impotence and cancers of the breast, prostate, colon, rectum, uterus, and ovaries.

To accomplish this astounding feat, here are the rules. You must not eat:

  • anything with a mother or a face (no meat, poultry, or fish)
  • dairy products (but subjects in his original study were allowed skim milk and non-fat yogurt!?)
  • oil of any kind, not a drop, not even olive oil
  • nuts or avocados

You can eat a wonderful variety of delicious, nutrient-dense foods:

  • all vegetables (leafy green vegetables, root vegetables, veggies that are red, green, purple, orange, and yellow and everything in between)
  • all legume *beans, peas, and lentils of all varieties)
  • all whole grains and products, such as bread and pasta, that are made from them — as long as they do not contain added fats
  • all fruits (except avocado)

His website claims:

It works. In the first continuous twelve-year study of the effects of nutrition in severely ill patients, which I will describe in this book, those who complied with my program achieved total arrest of clinical progression and significant selective reversal of coronary artery disease.

That’s misleading. He was not studying diet alone; his patients were also taking cholesterol-lowering medication. With no control group, how do we know the results were due to the diet rather than to other factors, like the intensive counseling or the medications they were taking? Statin therapy alone has been shown to cause regression of coronary lesions.   I would like to see controlled studies comparing statins to diet to a combination of both, or comparing Esselstyn’s strict diet to another, less strict, diet that controls calories, ensures good nutrition, and produces weight loss.

He says

Campbell et al., in the Cornell-China study, reports hundreds of thousands of rural Chinese going years without a single coronary event.

But that doesn’t tell us anything.

Esselstyn’s book allegedly

…explains, with irrefutable scientific evidence, how we can end the heart disease epidemic in this country forever by changing what we eat. Here, Dr. Esselstyn convincingly argues that a plant-based, oil-free diet can not only prevent and stop the progression of heart disease, but also reverse its effects.

No, not irrefutable. Not convincing. Hype that goes far beyond the evidence.

What Does It All Mean?

Ben Goldacre, in Bad Science, said:

The most important take-home message with diet and health is that anyone who ever expresses anything with certainty is basically wrong, because the evidence for cause and effect in this area is almost always weak and circumstantial…

Ornish, Campbell, and Esselstyn are all certain that they have found a dietary solution for coronary artery disease, but they have not found thesame solution. If you look closely you will realize that their programs are far from identical. And the evidence to support any of their programs is pretty skimpy. And others disagree strongly: Gary Taubes wrote the huge, extensively referenced tome Good Calories, Bad Calories to debunk the alleged certainty that dietary fat has anything to do with cardiovascular disease, and also to expose the colorful history of nutrition science and how surprisingly little good diet research has actually yet been done.

A systematic review found that

3 dietary strategies are effective in preventing CHD: substitute nonhydrogenated unsaturated fats for saturated and trans-fats; increase consumption of omega-3 fatty acids from fish, fish oil supplements, or plant sources; and consume a diet high in fruits, vegetables, nuts, and whole grains and low in refined grain products. However, simply lowering the percentage of energy from total fat in the diet is unlikely to improve lipid profile or reduce CHD incidence.

A 2010 systematic review concluded

The evidence base for multifactorial lifestyle interventions is weak.

Most sources of diet advice agree that eating more fruits and vegetables, less red meat, and fewer calories is a good idea. Total avoidance of meat is not supported by any reliable evidence. Esselstyn quotes Roberts, agreeing with him that the only true risk factor for coronary artery disease is a total cholesterol above 150 mg/dI. This is debatable to say the least! It would throw The International Network of Cholesterol Skeptics into conniption fits, and most science-based doctors would disagree vehemently. What about smoking, diabetes, and family history, for a start? The evidence shows that LDL cholesterol is more significant than total cholesterol. Opinions vary on whether LDL cholesterol can be adequately lowered with diet alone, whether statins are the only practical solution, or whether diet and statins should be used together.

Such drastic diet restrictions must be tested more carefully before any widespread adoption can be recommended. Are these people getting adequate nutrition? Does the diet increase the risk of other diseases? Is the benefit worth the difficult lifestyle modifications? What is the number needed to treat (NNT) to prevent one heart attack? What NNT would compensate for giving up the enjoyment of favorite foods for the rest of your life? Never again tasting ice cream? Or a juicy steak? Or an avocado?

I think Bill Clinton’s diet is based more on hope and desperation than on solid scientific evidence. I have to admire his self-discipline in sticking to a difficult diet; I only wish he had displayed the same level of self-discipline in his encounters with White House interns.

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Much of what we fear is not scary at all

Originally posted at the Calgary Herald: Rob Breakenridge writes on the tendency of Canadians to believe in dangers that have been proven to be completely overblown.  We tend to ignore the experts unless they are peddling scary scenarios.

Judging by the news in recent weeks and months, it would appear as though we have no shortage of things to be fearful of.

Bisphenol-A (BPA), cellphones, Wi-Fi transmitters and water fluoridation are just some of the apparent imminent dangers.

How can Canadians ensure that the responses to these issues are based on conclusive scientific evidence, as opposed to the urgings of overzealous advocacy groups, or worse, the rantings of charlatans and conspiracy theorists?

Take, for example, Canada’s recent decision to add BPA to the list of toxic substances.

Recent assessments by both the European Food Safety Agency and equivalent agency for Australia and New Zealand reached the same conclusions: that the scientific evidence speaks to BPA’s safety.

Furthermore, an international panel of experts convened by the World Health Organization (WHO) concluded that the evidence for BPA’s alleged health risks is weak, and that it would be premature to ban BPA.

The panel reviewed the most current scientific literature, and found that “BPA is not accumulated in the body and is rapidly eliminated through urine.”

There is, at least in this case, some reasonable disagreement, and certainly a need for further research. But it would seem safe to conclude that Canadians have been exposed to far more negative stories about BPA than stories on its safety. And a corresponding course of action by policy-makers has resulted.

Is there a connection between alarmist media coverage and public perception? Undoubtedly.

The problem may lie with us. A recent study from the University of California at Santa Barbara found that the advice and opinions of scientific experts is often ignored or rejected. The experts who are more trusted tend to be those presenting scary scenarios.

Maybe the news media, then, is only giving us what we want. If the mainstream media isn’t going to frighten us, there’s no shortage of websites that will.

You don’t have to look far to find websites touting all sorts of horrible effects of water fluoridation. These conspiracy theories have been sufficiently main-streamed that anti-fluoridation forces have scored some victories, included a decision last week in Waterloo, Ont., to stop fluoridation.

The reality, though, is that the evidence overwhelmingly confirms fluoridation’s safety. According to Health Canada, “evidence from all currently available studies does not support a link between exposure to fluoride in drinking water and any adverse health effects.”

The Canadian Dental Association concurs: “Scientific studies have not found any credible link between water fluoridation and adverse health effects.”

In fairness, much of the coverage surrounding this issue seems cognizant of this.

Why, then, does another scientific consensus seem absent in the coverage of the alleged risks of cellphones and Wi-Fi?

The Ontario NDP is pushing for government-mandated labels for cellphones warning of an alleged cancer risk. One Ontario school has banned Wi-Fi, and other schools across the country are being pressured to do so, too. In Ottawa, a Commons committee has been investigating radio-frequency radiation and its possible health effects.

Again, though, the evidence here is quite overwhelming. For example, in the U.K., the Health Protection Agency recently concluded that a year’s worth of Wi-Fi exposure was equivalent to talking on a cellphone for 20 minutes.

More broadly speaking, the WHO says “no adverse health effects are expected from exposure” to wireless networks.

As for cellphones and cancer, the evidence is similarly one-sided.

As summarized by the WHO: “Recent epidemiological studies have found no convincing evidence of an increased cancer risk or any other disease with mobile phone use.”

Indeed. A recent 30-year epidemiological study found that cellphone use is not associated with increases in brain cancer. A 2008 metaanalysis found “no overall increased risk of brain tumours.”

And on it goes.

There are legitimate concerns to human health we need to focus on, and we need to rely on the scientific process and scientific evidence to guide us accordingly.

Yet, from the anti-vaccine movement to homeopaths and “alternative medicine,” we so often are confronted by those going against the preponderance of evidence.

Perhaps, then, it is fear-mongering and pseudoscience we need to be more concerned about.



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Jonathan Kay: The Canadian roots of fluoridation-phobia

Originally posted on National Post: Jonathan Kay highlights some points from Rachel Elder’s study of the anti-fluoridation movement in Canada.  The recent vote against fluoridation of water in Waterloo was a victory for the purveys of anti-science crowd and credulity over sound scepticism.


Last week, I wrote about the ongoing junk-science campaign against water-fluoridation, which has resulted, most recently, in the city of Waterloo, Ont. removing fluoride from its water system. In documenting the history of the anti-fluoridation movement, I relied on the work of Gretchen Ann Reilly, whose U.S.-focused research appeared in the 2004 book The Politics of Healing. But I have since been delighted to learn that a Canadian scholar, Rachel Elder, has done a study of the anti-fluoridation movement right here in Canada. Her work appeared in a 2008 edition of The Canadian Historical Review.

Elder’s work is important for anyone who wants to put the current Canadian controversy over water fluoridation in context. As she shows, water fluoridation long has been supported by the Canadian medical establishment — notwithstanding anti-fluoridationists’ attempts to cite spurious, non-peer-reviewed studies purporting to show that fluoridated water causes cancer or other serious illnesses.

Anyone interested in the issue should read Elder’s article. But here are some highlights I thought were particularly interesting:

  • Montreal remains one of the last Canadian cities to continuously reject large-scale water-fluoridation, a legacy of mayor Jean Drapeau’s belief that the practice was an infringement on personal liberties. (This explain why, as a child growing up in Montreal, I was forced to submit to “fluoride treatments” at Dr. Weinstein’s office every 6 months.)
  • The recent referendum result in Waterloo, Ont. was nothing new. Between 1960 and 1966, there were 136 referendums or plebiscites on water fluoridation in Canada. Fluoridation lost more than 60% of the time.
  • The first Canadian city to fluoridate its water? Brantford, Ont. in the mid-1940s. (Brantford, of course, is also where Wayne Gretzky was born. Coincidence?)
  • In 1969, Canadian Doctor magazine published an editorial against water fluoridation by one Dr. K.A. Baird. According to Baird, fluoridation led to increasing “mongolism” in children. (Baird’s article was duly circulated by the Canadian League of Rights, a racist group that opposed fluoridation.)
  • Not all the General Jack D. Rippers were in America: A Strangelovian Vancouver activist, Reverend Herbert Robinson, published a pamphlet called “Fluorides: The Poisoning of a Whole Race,” in which he argued that fluoride was a communist plot. One of his coverts was Dr. Watson Kirkconnell, the President of Acadia University, who declared: “If we have to choose between sound teeth and healthy brains, I would vote for brains.”
  • In 1976, the Provincial Council of Women of British Columbia, which opposed fluoridation, passed a resolution as follows: “The right to determine what shall be done to one’s own body is fundamental and one should not be forced to take medication …” In other words: My teeth, my choice.


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BBC Finds Anti-Semitic Texts in UK Schools

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The Explosion of Early Christianity, Explained

Originally posted at Common Sense Atheism: Luke Muehlhauser gives an explanation for the explosion of Christianity in its’ early years.  It is, I think you’ll find, a rather natural one.

In just 300 years, Christianity grew from a small Jewish sect in Galilee to become the dominant religion of the Roman Empire. How can we explain this?

A popular explanation is mass conversion. Acts 2:41 reports that Peter converted 3,000 people with a single sermon. Early church historian Eusebius wrote that the apostles “went on to other countries and nations with the grace and cooperation of God, for a great many wonderful works were done through them, by the power of the divine Spirit, so that at first hearing, whole multitudes of men eagerly embraced the religion of the Creator of the universe.”1

Modern thinkers tended to agree. Yale historian Ramsey MacMullen wrote that Christianity grew so quickly that it must have had “successes en masse.”2

Christians explain these mass conversions with supernatural miracles; proof that Christianity is true! Even atheists think the early Christians must have been such good preachers they converted whole audiences. Whatever the explanation for mass conversions, it seems that Christianity could not have grown so fast without them.

At least, that’s what we thought until 1996, when somebody actually bothered to do the math. That man was Rodney Stark, sociologist of religion.


The math is pretty simple. Let’s do it ourselves. We need two numbers: a early starting count of Christians and a count around 300 C.E. Here’s Rodney Stark writing about the starting number:

For a starting number, Acts 1:14-15 suggests that several months after the Crucifixion there were 120 Christians. Later, in Acts 4:4, a total of 5,000 believers is claimed. And, according to Acts 21:20, by the sixth decade of the first century there were “many thousands of Jews” in Jerusalem who now believed. These are not statistics. Had there been that many converts in Jerusalem, it would have been the first Christian city, since there probably were no more than twenty thousand inhabitants at this time… As Hans Conzelmann noted, these numbers are only “meant to render impressive the marvel that here the Lord himself is at work” [1973:63]. Indeed, as Robert M. Grant pointed out, “one must always remember that figures in antiquity… were part of rhetorical exercises” [1977:7-8] and were not really meant to be taken literally. Nor is this limited to antiquity. In 1984 a Toronto magazine claimed that there were 10,000 Hare Krishna members in that city. But when [researchers] checked on the matter, they found that the correct total was 80.3

So let’s say there were only 1,000 Christians by the year 40, a full decade after Jesus’ death.

As for the ending number, at 300 C.E., historians have made many estimates, usually around 5-8 million.4

So, Christianity may have grown from about 1,000 believers in 40 C.E. to about 5-8 million in 300 C.E. – just 260 years. That would require a growth rate of 40% per decade, as shown by this table:

Year Number of Christians, given 40% growth per decade
40 1,000
50 1,400
60 1,960
70 2,744
80 3,842
90 5,378
100 7,530
150 40,496
200 217,795
250 1,171,356
300 6,299,832
350 33,882,008

That really is tremendous growth. Now we can ask, does this kind of growth require mass conversions?

As it turns out, this matches almost exactly the growth rate of the Mormon church over the past century. Mormonism has grown at 43% per decade, and without mass conversions.5

Exponential growth explains the explosion of Christianity perfectly. In fact, it also explains why Christianity seemed insignificant until about 300, when it suddenly became a huge force in the Roman Empire.6 The growth rate remained the same, but in terms of absolute numbers, Christianity would indeed explode around that time – from 6 million to 33 million adherents – if it tracked with the growth rate of Mormonism.

So, the early growth of the Christian church is impressive, but no more impressive than the growth of Mormonism.

And in fact, Christianity had several advantages that Mormonism never had.

For example, Christianity was the only missionary religion in the Roman Empire. Jews and pagans did not try to convert each other. Christianity had that field all to itself. Contrast that with the world faced by Mormonism, in which dozens of missionary religions compete with Mormonism for new adherents.

Second, Christianity was an exclusivist religion. If an ancient Roman converted from one brand of paganism to another, he was free to keep his old gods. One brand of paganism gained an adherent, and another did not lose one. But Christianity was intolerant of other beliefs. If someone converted to Christianity, then Christianity gained an adherent and paganism lost one. This was also true of Judaism, but Jews did not evangelize. Mormonism is also an exclusivist religion, but it is competing mostly with other exclusivist religions (Christianity and Islam).

Third, Christianity offered equal status to women, who had very low status in Judaism and in Roman society. Instead, Mormonism actually offers women lower status than in the society at large – hardly an attractive feature to half of all potential converts to Mormonism.

Fourth, we have no mention of primary evidence relating to Jesus that ancient people could use to defend or discredit Christianity. In contrast, primary evidence that discredits the bogus career of Joseph Smith is easily available, because he lived in the modern era.

Fifth, Christianity competed only with Judaism – which had no missionaries – as a text-driven religion. Texts are a powerful way to spread, unify, and preserve religious movements, and the pagan world had few of any importance.7 In contrast, Mormonism had to compete with dozens of other text-driven religions during its infancy, most notably orthodox Christianity and Islam.

Sixth, after Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, whole villages thought it best to “convert” to Christianity,8 and entire cities of barbarians “converted” with their leader when their settlement was subsumed in the Roman Empire.9 Mormonism has never benefited from such state support.

Even with all these disadvantages compared to early Christianity, Mormonism seems to have slightly outpaced the growth of the early Christian church.

Clearly, we have no need of mass conversions or magical explanations. The early growth of Christianity is, actually, much less impressive than the growth of Mormonism in the 20th century, which required neither mass conversions nor miracles.

The explosion of atheism

There is another problem for Christians who want to say that the explosive growth of early Christianity must be due to God. Compared to Christianity, atheism grew even faster during the 20th century. According to the World Christian Encyclopedia (the most respected source for religious demographics):

The number of nonreligionists…  throughout the 20th century has skyrocketed from 3.2 million in 1900… to 918 million in AD 2000… From a miniscule presence in 1900, a mere 0.2% of the globe, [atheism and agnosticism] are today expanding at the extraordinary rate of 8.5 million new converts each year, and are likely to reach one billion adherents soon. A large percentage of their members are the children, grandchildren or the great-great-grandchildren of persons who in their lifetimes were practicing Christians.

At the early Christian rate of 40% per decade and 3.2 million in 1900, non-believers would have only numbered 74 million in 2000, not 918 million. The growth rate of non-belief in the 20th century was 76% per decade.

The percentage-of-world-population gain for atheism was even greater. Christianity claimed about a third of world population in 1900, and claims the same today. Hindus stayed at 1/7th of the world total throughout the century. Buddhism and paganism have declined. Islam went from 1/8th to 1/5th – not through freedom or education but through unprotected sex. In contrast, non-belief during the 20th century skyrocketed from 0.2% to 15.2%! Clearly, the gods are not winning.

Of course, atheism is not a religion, so the comparison is not fair. But what are Christians supposed to make of this? Did Satan strike a big blow to Yahweh, who is now losing the battle? Did a god who likes atheists take over? Or is our planet – which became literate and educated as never before in the 20th century – finally growing up?


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