Dr. Egnor: taking medicocrity to a whole new level

I hate to do this to you but I have to fisk a fisking. You see, Dr. Michael Egnor, the creationist neurosurgeon, was a bit miffed about my takedown of a particularly idiotic post of his.

For those of you who left your program at the gate, Egnor is a (apparently competent) neurosurgeon in New York. He’s known on the internets for having joined up with the creationist cult pseudoscientific organization, the Discovery Institute. Just as DI has little to say of relevance to the history of life on Earth, Egnor has little of relevance to say about medical science, as far as I can tell.

The thing is, his skills as a neurosurgeon are likely to be unaffected by his religious beliefs. Not so his critical thinking skills. As I explored in the aforementioned piece, Egnor has bought into the garbage spewed forth by some of the worst quacks on the Continent. While I happen to think his religious beliefs are somewhere between cute and silly, I find his medical beliefs (and that is what they are—beliefs) execrable. And so, I jotted down some of my thoughts about the ways in which his thinking is muddled.

His response to my response? More logical fallacies. More smoke and mirrors.

I would have loved to see him try to defend his ideas on facts. You know, things you can measure, or at least conceive of measuring. Maybe a plea from him to look beyond whatever narrow worldview I hold, to look at a big picture that I’m missing.

But no, he goes straight for one of my favorites, the non sequitur. Let me explain.
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False equality

I’m off to the west coast (of Michigan) for a few days, and if I don’t blog, I shall die…or something. So I have a few posts from my old blog to share with you.

As my child approaches school age, I worry about school board battles a little bit more. I hate politics, but I can see myself forced to get involved at some point. And I find myself wondering, what is it about some Evangelical Christians? Why is their faith so weak? Is God testing them? I ask this because of their constant griping about “equal time” for Creationism in public schools. Given that science classes are supposed to teach science and not religion, it’s pretty much a no-brainer; and after the smack-down they received in Dover, you’d think maybe, just maybe, they would have learned their lesson. But these soldiers for Christ carry on, betraying their ultimate lack of faith in the Bible and their God.

Lack of faith? But they’re fighting so hard for their faith! Whatever could you mean?

Faith, which is the belief in the supernatural despite lack of evidence, is, in the terms of some theologies, a gift from God. It is the belief in things not seen. It’s essentially a test—believe in Me despite my refusal to prove my existence, and you will be rewarded. Anyone can believe in a God who walks the Earth. It takes a special kind of believer to follow a God who never shows up.

Most of the truly faithful go about their lives with their belief, understanding that God is not likely to confirm their faith until they die. And that’s just fine with them, because it doesn’t change most of the events of the day. The sun rises, the sun sets. The car starts. The snow falls. These things happen for the faithful and heathen alike.

But the ID’ers out there seem to lack a strong faith in their God. They feel that scientists, teachers, and governments must give them a stamp of legitimacy. Their faith is so weak that a high school biology teacher can shake its very foundations.

Want to prove your faith in God? Then live among those who don’t believe, and let that reinforce your ideas. Move to Israel, to Iran, to Saudi Arabia for a year and let your faith be tested. But stop saying that your faith deserves equal time along side science in classrooms. The idea is insulting to those of us who don’t share your beliefs, and should be insulting to you, as it implies that you need your God to have the approval of secular authorities.

I bring this up because of a concern that, admittedly, is a variation on a slippery slope argument. If you can insert Creationism into a science classroom in the name of “equal time”, then you could also put homeopathy and other cult beliefs into medical schools for the same reason. This, despite lack of any scientific evidence.

The attack on science isn’t limited to the overtly religious, but as I’ve said before, many of these altmed beliefs are essentially religion, in that they require faith over reason.

So teach your kids whatever you want. Just don’t teach it to mine.

Mormons Supporting CA Gay Marriage Ban Big Time

Here’s a bit of a surprise. In California, our Supreme Court legalized gay marriage. Opponents quickly arranged a ballot proposition to reverse the ban. Support for the ban has been slipping, from almost 50% earlier in the year, to 42% in July, and now to 38% in the latest Field Poll.

Mark Schoofs reports in today’s Journal that the Mormons are large backers of the marriage ban proposition:

Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have contributed more than a third of the approximately $15.4 million raised since June 1 to support Proposition 8. The ballot initiative, if passed, would reverse the current right of same-sex couples to marry.

It’s clear from the article that church officials are directing the flock to donate. I hope that the IRS investigates them.

So, why do the Mormons care about gay marriage? It’s a funny question, in that one of the principal conservative arguments against gay marriage is that it will open the door to polygamy or marriage with young children. But Mormons care more about purity of essence, it appears:

Same-sex marriage hits at the heart of Mormon theology, said Terryl Givens, a professor of literature and religion at the University of Richmond. According to scholars and documents on the Mormon Church’s official Web site, couples married in a Mormon temple remain wedded for eternity and can give birth to spirit children in the afterlife. Most importantly, Mormons must be married to achieve “exaltation,” the ultimate state in the afterlife. Mormons also believe they retain their gender in the afterlife.

“This all explains the Mormon difficulty with homosexuality,” said Mr. Givens. In a theology based on eternal gender, marriage and exaltation, “same-sex attraction doesn’t find a place.”

A very confused pharmacist

I’ve written often about the ethics of doctors and pharmacists imposing their own morals on their patients and customers. Our Sb pharmacologist has as well. And even though all of our legitimate professional organizations recognize this line, Bush’s Department of Health and Human Services has jumped into the ring to join a fight that should never have started. And just to demonstrate how single-mindedly idiotic an evangelical (small “e”) mindset can be when applied to medicine, PZ Myers, uber-atheist, received an interesting solicitation (please, don’t quote-mine that).

To remind you of the issue at hand, there are a number of doctors and pharmacists out there who think that their own religious beliefs should trump the standards of good medical care and the needs of their patients. This is why I write of “evangelism”: professionals who are trying to teach the Good Word (any Good Word) to their patients have stepped very far over an ethical line.
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Theocracy in action—HHS proposes to limit birth control

I’m so angry I can barely type coherently. I have very strong feelings about abortion, but I believe it is possible to respectfully disagree about the ethical issues involved. I have an obstetrics colleague who does not perform abortions, but refers patients needing this service to others. That’s the ethical way for a doctor to oppose abortion—don’t do it, don’t prosteletize, refer out. My personal feeling is a woman has the right to control her body and all that dwells within, but I can see why others would disagree.

All that being said, if you chose a profession that will, by its very nature create an insoluble ethical conundrum, you need to get a new job. Pharmacists who refuse to dispense birth control when given a lawfully written prescription should be fired immediately and consider a change in careers.

The Religious Right is trying to protect these types of “acts of conscience.” Traditional passive resistance in the model of Thoreau and King emphasized the breaking of unjust laws and the acceptance of any punishment that goes with it. The religious right in this country is not content with this model—they would prefer to allow for acts of conscience without consequences. In this vein, the Church Amendment was passed. This amendment protects professionals who are trying to impose their values on others by mandating that health care providers who receive federal funds not require providers to provide services that to which they morally object. This has not been widely enforced apparently, because a draft is circulating at the Department of Health and Human Services that would step up enforcement, and broaden the services to which people could object, even protecting them if they refuse to refer to an alternate provider. This document terribly flawed for a number of reasons.
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PZ vs. the cracker

I was trying to avoid weighing in on this one, but blogorrhea always wins.

I won’t bother rehashing the details of the imbroglio—if you don’t know, well, you’ve been sleeping. Go on…google “pharyngula cracker”…I can wait.

OK, now that you’ve caught up, here’s my two cents.

I’m conflicted about this. It’s not usually a good thing to offend people’s deeply held beliefs unless those beliefs are deeply offensive. A free society requires a great deal of tolerance. This of course cuts both ways–if Catholics can expect reasonable peace, so can those who criticize their beliefs.

As I started writing this, my daughter took the pen out of my tablet pc and broke the clip off of it. I reacted angrily, and she gave me one of those “I’m gonna punish you by crying” looks. I grabbed her, held her tight, and said, “It’s just a thing, honey. Things aren’t important; people are.”

And that helped put things in perspective—sort of. How would I feel if someone grabbed a Torah out of the Ark and tossed it on the floor? I’d be angry at the gesture, and possibly frightened, given the history of my people.

The fact that people are willing to die in the name of an object, rather than a person, saddens me. Objects, no matter how deeply revered, are objects. Fundamentalists often claim a unique insight into the value of human life, based on it’s relationship to the divine. At the same time, they are uniquely able to imbue inanimate objects with that same divine presence. Atheists are often criticized for having no basis for valueing life, but, hey, how many atheists will threaten your life over a scroll or a cracker? Deification of the inanimate, raising the value of the inanimate above that of a human being is unique to religion, and a unique danger.

My daughter is smart enough to know that a thing is a thing, a person a person, and one is more valuable than the other. Perhaps the fundies need a lesson from a four year-old.


Arghhh!!! Framing. What is it?

Is it a way of communicating issues effectively to diverse populations? Or is it another word for compromising your values until they become meaningless?

In his latest piece, SciBling Matt Nisbet shows it to be the latter. While many of us are shaking our heads as we are forced to choose a candidate who panders to religion, Nisbet praises Obama’s strategy of co-opting the Religious Right’s message by supporting faith-based charities.

If your only goal is to elect Obama, perhaps this is a good strategy. If your goal is to continue to improve our (secular) nation, this is hardly a step forward. To continue this unnatural mingling of government and religion is a mistake. It does not improve delivery of charitable services (Bush’s plan has been a complete failure). It also makes services less accessible in a diverse community. If you do not wish to support your local Lutheran church, for instance, but they are the ones with the alcohol rehab program, well, that’s one more barrier to recovery.

Make no mistake—funding faith-based initiatives is religious extremism. Frame it however you will, it is another erosion of our personal liberties. This is not a place for compromise.

The Taiping Rebellion—mass murder in the name of Jesus’s crazy little brother

A number of years ago, I saw an older physician reading a book with an intriguing title—God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan, by Jonathan Spence. Like most Americans, I know very little about Chinese history. I certainly had no idea that there was a massive civil war in 19th century China that by most estimates killed around 20 million people.

Twenty. Million. People.

By comparison, the American Civil War, which took place in roughly the same time period, took around 700,000 lives (military, disease, civilian, etc.). I’m not a historian, and I read the book a long time ago, but this story sticks with you.

The leader of the Rebellion, Hong Xiuquan, was a failed civil service aspirant, from a non-dominant ethnic group. After failing his civil service exam multiple times and listening to some Christian missionaries, he had a vision that he was the younger brother of Jesus, and somehow used his insanity to capitalize on existing ethnic and economic tensions. He amassed a remarkably large, brutal, and fanatical army, replace existing religious restrictions with his own, and enforced morality where he held control.

This maniac took over most of south and central China. His “Heavenly Kingdom” ruled millions of people, and had it’s capital in Nanjing. In one battle for Nanjing 100,000 people were killed.

So, basically in modern times, out of the minds of most Westerners (who were admittedly preoccupied with killing each other), a wacko religious visionary managed to take over most of China, causing the deaths of millions of people. How do we not know about that?

Like many theocracies led by charismatic rulers, when he died, things fell apart. Military support from the West helped the Qing dynasty recapture most of the country.

The Qing re-instituted their brand of oppression (which was probably marginally better than Hong’s) and things went back to “normal” after a decade or so.


A middle-class guy declares himself Jesus’s brother, takes over the biggest country in the world, millions die. He also declared women equal, stopped foot binding, and women served in his army. Traditional Confucianism relied strongly on subjugation of women, and one thing this nut-job saw clearly was that half the population was available for recruitment.

It makes you wonder—where else are there large, poor, oppressed populations waiting for a delusional theocrat to come along and harness their power?

Faith Healing in the WSJ

The WSJ brings us news of increasing opposition to laws that would protect faith healing. Or as I call it, negligence. As usual it has required the death of innocents before people will come to grips with common sense.

The recent death from untreated diabetes of an 11-year-old Wisconsin girl has invigorated opposition to obscure laws in many states that let parents rely on prayer, rather than medicine, to heal sick children.

Dale and Leilani Neumann of Weston, Wis., are facing charges of second-degree reckless homicide after their child, Madeline Kara Neumann, died on Easter after slipping into a coma. The death, likely preventable with insulin, has renewed calls for Wisconsin and dozens of other states to strike laws that protect parents who choose prayer alone in lieu of medical treatment.

I’ll take issue here. “Likely preventable with insulin” should actually be, “completely and totally, unquestionably, preventable with insulin.” In fact for type I diabetics, and critically in diabetic ketoacidosis, the choice really is insulin or death, with no middle ground. You need insulin to live. But I digress.

Lawyers nationwide say they are eager to see if the Neumann case sparks more changes in state laws. It raises a “national discourse as to whether children can be medically neglected legally,” says Marci Hamilton, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York who writes about children’s rights. In another recent case, a 15-month-old child in Oregon died in March from a form of pneumonia and a blood infection after her parents opted to try to heal her with prayer. Oregon law provides no defense for parents charged with causing the death of a child through neglect or maltreatment, and the couple has been charged with second-degree manslaughter and criminal mistreatment.

There’s been a small, steady pushback against state provisions protecting spiritual healing. A Massachusetts bill that would have protected parents who used prayer in lieu of medical treatment stalled in committee last year, despite the measure’s broad sponsorship by 33 lawmakers.

In Maryland, lawmakers in 2005 repealed part of a law that had protected parents from losing custody if they withheld medical treatment because of religious belief. And in Maine that year, legislators amended several laws regarding religious treatment, and repealed part of its family law that stated that children couldn’t automatically be considered abused solely because they were treated “by spiritual means by an accredited practitioner.” Evert Fowle, the district attorney in Augusta, Maine, said the amendments would now allow him to bring charges against guardians should a child be harmed after being treated with prayer alone.

And here is the question for my readers, although to me it isn’t much of a question at all. Do parents have a duty to their children to protect their health using the best information available? Or does freedom of choice dictate the ability of parents to decide whether their children can live or die based upon unethical human experimentation with prayer or quack therapies? Because that’s what you call it when you take an unproven modality and try it out on someone to see if they get better – experimentation. Did I load that question heavily enough?

More below the fold:

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Just one more note on Expelled

Many of my fellow bloggers, and many fellow Michiganders, have noted a breath of fresh air out of (ironically) the Motor City. This quote from Real Detroit Weekly’s review of Expelled hits on an important point. By way of background, the following quote refers to the incident where biologist PZ Myers (who happens not to believe in any gods) was kicked out of a screening of the movie:

Mathis laughs before offering two reasons why he told the security guard at the screening not to let Myers in. First, Mathis says, “He has viciously attacked me personally and attacked the film.” Just to clarify, Myers did not break into Mr. Mathis’ house in a drunken rage with a bowie knife–he has simply been critical of Mathis’ arguments.

And here, my friends, is a chasm that may be too hard to cross, no matter how we frame the issue. When someone attacks, say, my belief that beta blockers prolong survival in heart failure, my response is, “Really? Prove it.” If they prove it, OK. If they don’t, OK (more or less). No hard feelings. When you tell a Creationist, “Your beliefs are not science, and should really stay out of the classroom,” they feel viciously attacked. Their “scientific” ideas aren’t scientific at all, but religious ideas to which they are emotionally attached. When you tell a Creationist that their beliefs aren’t science, you might as well be telling them that their god is dead. And that’s a problem.

Many religious people are scientists, and many scientists are religious. There is no inherent conflict. Humans are perfectly capable of holding multiple contradictory ideas simultaneously—unless they are a Creationist. For the religious extremists, there can only be one “truth” and to criticize it is to be worse than wrong, it is to be heretical, and we all know what they do to heretics…