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Alternative (to) Medicine

The Silver Bullet. The Magic Pill. The Cure For What Ails Ya. Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a miracle drug that could instantly cure us of whatever illness we might have? “Colds? Muscle pain? TB? Gonorrhea? Cancer? Pop this pill and call me in the morning.”

Sadly, no such thing exists (yet). The human body is an extremely complicated piece of machinery (Needlessly complicated in fact, that’s why it’s improbable that we’re intelligently designed, ok creationists?), and drugs that have a beneficial effect on one part of your body will likely have a detrimental effect on another part of your body. No single drug will have a beneficial effect on your ENTIRE body, unless you consider death to be beneficial.

However, there are many people who swear by such miracle cures. Pretty much all of them fall into the category known as “Alternative Medicine”.

Alternative medicine has always existed, in one form or another, throughout human history. The principles have roughly stayed the same: “All maladies are caused by some sort of imbalance in our *insert magical, unmeasureable, undetectable energy/life force here*, and the cure is *insert modality here*.”

The thing is, they only became “alternative” after the dawn of science-based medicine. Our ancestors used all sorts of “treatments” and “remedies” for every ailment, from the mundane (leaves, flowers, ground up animal parts, etc) to the outright bizarre (spells, incantations, faith healing, etc).

But we can’t really blame our ancestors because back then, our knowledge base was pretty limited. In fact, as recently as the 1860’s, bloodletting was a pretty common treatment for a lot of ailments. Even something as simple as handwashing was seen as “ungentlemanly” by doctors and surgeons, no less.

But in this day and age of advanced scientific knowledge, near instant communications, fast transport and travel,  fantastic technologies, and the incredible exchange of ideas afforded to us by the internet, there really isn’t much of an excuse to believe in Supplements, Complementary and Alternative Medicine (or SCAM, for short)…

…or is there?

Let’s try to analyze this question:

“If SCAM is bunk, then why is it so popular?”

I think it boils down to a few factors:

1. Confirmation bias:

Most people who use SCAM fall under one of two categories:

a. Those who already believe in them;

b. and those who are willing to try them either because of lack of finances, or because conventional medicine didn’t work for them.

Both these types almost always fall victim to confirmation bias. So what is confirmation bias?

Confirmation bias (also called confirmatory bias or myside bias) is a tendency for people to favor information that confirms their preconceptions or hypotheses regardless of whether the information is true. As a result, people gather evidence and recall information from memory selectively, and interpret it in a biased way.

The first type already expects the SCAM modality to work, so they feel better after using it. The second type is desperate for something to work, and is therefore primed to believe that it is actually working.

2. The body heals itself (most of the time):

If you’re like the vast majority of people in the civilized world, you won’t go see your doctor until your fever/cold/cough/ache is at it’s worst. Also, a significant portion of that population goes to a SCAM practitioner, instead of a real doctor.

The thing is, if we are reasonably healthy, our bodies are quite capable of fighting off most illnesses. And since we go see these SCAM practitioners at the peak of our illness, any treatment they perform (or don’t perform) is almost guaranteed to “cure” you. Thus, giving the illusion that the homeopath, naturopath, reiki master, acupuncturist, chiropractor, touch therapist, etc. is the real deal.

Now I’m sure some SCAM proponent is saying ” AHA! So you’re admitting that those who go to real doctors also have this phenomenon going for them!”

Well yes, to a certain degree. You see, the placebo effect applies even to real medicine. So you get an actual benefit, PLUS the placebo effect. This is also the reason why in science, we have this thing called the “randomized, double blinded, controlled clinical trials” to separate the placebo effect from true efficacy, something no SCAM practitioner does.

3. Personal anecdotes trump impersonal data every single time:

We love hearing stories, especially stories delivered with conviction by a satisfied SCAM victim customer. Let’s face it: Hearing a feelgood story about how some miracle product cured a person of his/her cancer is far more compelling than some boring study written on a piece of paper by anonymous scientists from thousand of miles away. This is one of the big reasons why practically every form of SCAM relies on testimonials from satisfied victims customers.

4. It feels good and is easy to understand:

Every successful SCAM modality is also very simple to understand. No technical knowledge is required. There’s no scary sounding drugs or hyper-complicated machinery to intimidate you. From vague and simple explanations of adjusting/restoring the balance of chi in your body to replenishing vibrational energy/bioenergy/life energy, just about anyone can understand it. Many SCAM modalities also incorporate soothing music, comfortable couches or beds, massages, and dim lighting to help a victim customer relax. As you might guess, a relaxed victim customer is more likely to report positive results.

And because of all of the above, many of us are quite eager to accept that these SCAM modalities work, despite the low quality of evidence that supports them. As I have mentioned before, most SCAM practitioners rely on testimonials and anecdotal evidence. They also love to cite poorly made studies, many of which are performed by themselves, and published in “pee-reviewed” (that’s not a typo) medical journals, which were made just to promote SCAMs.

5. Conspiracy theorists vs “Big Pharma”:

There is a general notion among the public that “Big Pharma” is out to get them and that Big Pharma is in bed with Big Bad Government to keep us sick in order to keep selling drugs. Many SCAM practitioners love to incite this particular fear and paranoia into potential victims customers. It’s easy to target “Big Pharma” as evil, because it’s seen as one single entity. Few people realize that in order for this “Big Pharma Conspiracy” to exist, everyone from the pharmaceutical companies’ top management to government officials, to doctors, to nurses, med techs, researchers, down to the clerks and support staff HAVE to be involved in the conspiracy. Few people stop to think that these people are human too, with their own friends and loved ones that they would like to keep free from illness.

Now, do I think pharmaceutical companies are benevolent and have only our wellbeing and best interests at heart? Of course not. As with any other business, the three main objectives of pharmaceutical companies are 1.) profit, 2.) Profit, and 3.) PROFIT. Given the choice of cutting costs and saving money vs spending a fortune on efficacy and safety trials, I’m pretty sure which path the pharmaceutical executives would rather take.

But this is why the pharmaceutical industry is one of the most heavily regulated industries in the world. The FDA keeps a close eye on them. These companies spend billions upon billions of dollars on R&D, efficacy trials, and safety trials. They have to, otherwise they won’t have a product to sell. This is also why most real medicine costs a lot.  In fact, the rules and regulations are so stringent that roughly 85% to 90% of the drugs being tested never get past the first and second phase of clinical trials. It is also interesting to note that Big Pharma actually PREFERS these super stringent rules and regulations that cost a lot of money, because it discourages startup competition, leaving only the big boys with fat wallets.

And no, the FDA is not perfect. Many defective products have still passed through it’s screening process. Some would say that this is unacceptable and the FDA sucks, but that would be like saying that Kobe Bryant is bad at free throw shooting because he only makes 84% of them. Also, once a defect is discovered (even relatively minor ones), it is immediately pulled out.

Compare and contrast with SCAM, which few people realize is ALSO a multi-billion dollar industry. The SCAM industry has a ridiculous reputation for being “all natural” (as if that means anything) and somehow “more caring and more personal”. We need to realize that these people also have profit as their primary motive. Otherwise, they wouldn’t charge for their treatments. The worst part is, this industry is NOT regulated at all. For an industry that frequently promises to “wash away the toxins”, many of their products have been found to contain hazardous materials.

We, as consumers, need to be more skeptical of fantastic claims. This is the only way we can weed out bad products from the good ones. As with almost every thing we encounter in life, it’s useful to always remember this adage:

“If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”

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Why Sherlock Should Give A Damn About The Solar System

 “But It’ s The Solar System!”

In keeping with the spirit of Year of the Solar System, I am going to write about two of my latest obsessions in one post: the Solar System and the BBC series Sherlock.

Who will watch Sherlock and Watson?

Let me start by saying that I am a big fan of Sherlock. (And, in case you’re wondering: yes, the homoeroticism is one of my favorite aspects of the series.) After having said that, I will now proceed to criticize a view of science encouraged by Arthur Conan Doyle’s character. In other words, I am going to argue why Sherlock should give a damn about the Solar System.

In Doyle’s Sherlock novel A Study in Scarlet, Dr. John Watson was surprised to discover that Sherlock Holmes does not know, nor does he care, that the Earth revolves around the Sun. In Watson’s own words, Holmes’s knowledge about astronomy, among other things, was “next to nothing.” Holmes’s lack of knowledge about the Copernican theory is especially surprising given that he knows so much about things like the appearance of different kinds of cigar ash.

Uncle Sherlock says coke is good for your deduction.

In the novel, Holmes defended his cluelessness about astronomy by likening his mind to an attic with limited space. He said that he couldn’t be bothered to remember useless trivia that have no relevance to his work as a detective. After all, knowing what different kinds of ash look like helped him solve a case, but knowing that the Sun is the center of the Solar System did not. In the BBC series, Sherlock’s defense went like this, “Oh hell, what does the solar system matter? So we go round the sun.  If we went round the moon or round and round the garden like a teddy bear it wouldn’t make any difference.  All that matters to me is the work. Without it my brain rots.”

To this, all that Watson could retort was, “But it’s the Solar System!” I wonder why this line by Watson is not as popular as it should be.

A shirt depicting the Teddicentric model of the 'Solar' system.

Given that Sherlock Holmes probably has Asperger syndrome (the BBC Sherlock describes himself to be a “high functioning sociopath”), maybe we can forgive him for knowing so many trivial things but not knowing that the Earth revolves around the Sun. This should not, however, be used by people who want an excuse for skipping out on their basic science.

More importantly, Sherlock’s apathy towards fundamental scientific concepts betrays a deep misunderstanding of the structure of science. Let us look at two of the most glaring deficiencies in Sherlock’s conception of science, which are (a) his unfamiliarity with the principle of consilience and (b) his lack of appreciation for the principle of parsimony.


The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines consilience as the “linking together of principles from different disciplines especially when forming a comprehensive theory.” The word has been around for some time now, although it recently regained currency thanks to E.O. Wilson’s wonderful book, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1998).

A must read.

Although the dictionary definition is useful in its rigidity, I would like to use Wilson’s subtitle, ‘the unity of knowledge’, as my definition of consilience. Although this definition is rather vague, it’s just what I need to illustrate why Sherlock should give a damn about the Solar System.

I respect Sherlock’s view that one should not waste one’s brainpower on useless trivia. The basic concepts of science, however, are not useless trivia for the reason that there is a unity of knowledge in science. In other words, scientific theories cannot be treated in isolation of each other. If you do not understand how the Solar System behaves, then your understanding of gravity will be limited. If you have a limited grasp of how gravity works, then you easily end up believing a lot of wrong things, like how the positions of the planets at the time of your birth determine your destiny.

While a lot of scientific facts are better left to the specialists, there is a set of fundamental scientific concepts that every educated person should know because they are connected in countless ways to our daily life. Let’s call such scientific concepts keystone concepts. Keystone concepts are concepts one must comprehend in order to formulate a consistent theory of the world. And one needs a consistent theory of the world in order to make the correct decisions when necessary. (“Should I buy a cheap plot of land near the Marikina Fault Line?” “Are genetically modified crops bad for me?” “Should I vote for a politician who denies global warming?”)

Watson to himself: "Should I be roommies with this guy?"

The Copernican theory is a splendid example of a keystone concept. Sherlock, who is a detective, should know better that the Copernican theory is intimately linked with the theory of gravity, which in turn dictates how bullets behave when fired from the barrel of a gun; planetary astronomy, as it should be clear to anyone who understands science, cannot be separated from ballistics.

Other examples of keystone concepts in science are the atomic theory, the theory of evolution by natural selection and the germ theory of diseases.

What I find beautiful about scientific consilience is the fact that you do not need to memorize so many scientific facts in order to have a full grasp of the world around you. Like Sherlock, I believe that remembering so many facts that have no relevance to your life is wasteful and counterproductive. However, because there is consilience in science, knowing that the Earth goes round the Sun is not an isolated fact but should be part of a web knowledge that informs our view of the world.

Furthermore, consilience makes it easier to take in new facts because learning something new does not involve remembering it by rote. Rather, because of the unity of knowledge, new facts about the world can be easily incorporated into our worldview. Hence, knowing the keystone concepts of science such as the theory of evolution helps us save on brainpower rather than waste it. We can state this fact in another way: keystone concepts help us organize our knowledge in such a way that makes acquisition of new information easy. To use Holmes’s attic analogy in Scarlet, being familiar with the keystone concepts help us tidy up that attic that is our mind so that it becomes easier for us to decide which piece of information is truly useless and which is helpful.

As a matter of fact, in the BBC series, Watson gets the last laugh when Sherlock discovers that in order to solve the mystery, a little background knowledge on astronomy is helpful after all.

"I just googled 'star that shouldn't be there.'"



In dismissing the Copernican theory as useless trivia, Sherlock fails to grasp another principle of science called parsimony.

As it is usually presented, parsimony describes the simplicity of an explanation. The most parsimonious explanation is one that explains the most with the fewest assumptions. Closely linked with the principle of parsimony is the famous Occam’s razor. Occam’s razor says that in choosing between competing logically consistent explanations, one must choose the simplest explanation.

Occam's razor: shaving theories clean since 1495.

The parsimony I want to talk about in relation to Sherlock and the Solar System, however, is the simplicity that comes in accepting a scientific worldview.

The world around us is exploding with an almost endless parade of seemingly unrelated phenomena. However, if one has a scientific view of things, one discovers that beneath all this complexity is an underlying simplicity (a phrase I got from Jong Atmosfera).

Take the heliocentric model of the Solar System. In this model, the Sun is the center of the Solar System and the planets, along with asteroids and comets, revolve around it. This model of the Solar System beautifully, and simply, explains so many things that are relevant to our daily lives. For example, combined with the fact that the Earth’s axis is tilted, it explains why we have seasons. It also explains why we have tides, why our Moon has many phases, why the Sun rises in the east and sets in the west, and why a year is approximately 365 days long. Our knowledge of how the Earth goes round the Sun also helps us adjust our calendars accordingly so that we can better order our lives around the passage of the seasons.

On a more romantic but still scientific level, knowing how our Solar System is configured gives us clues to our origins, which in turn tell us a lot about who we are. It is our knowledge of our cosmic neighborhood that enabled us to surmise the fact that we are in truth made of stardust, and that we are products of more than 4 billion years of evolution on a lonely piece of rock that floats in the vastness of space. Far from being mere romantic knowledge, such realizations provide us with powerful insights into human nature. If natural selection operating on a bunch of stardust produced us, then what does that say of us? If we want to control our destiny as an individual and as a species, we must know the answer to this very important question.

And if Sherlock wants to read people like books, it would certainly help him to know where humans figure in the grand scheme of the cosmos.

"We are all stardust, my dear Watson."


Why You Should Give A Damn About The Solar System

Yes, you can live a full life without bothering to know the first thing about the Solar System. However, I hope I have convinced you that life is simply so much better knowing the Earth goes round the Sun. And it certainly is a lot less boring.

The Doctor: "But it's the Solar System!" (courtesy of Laura Birdsall)


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Walking Through Our Solar System

Year of the Solar System

It's the Year of the Solar System!

Happy Year of the Solar System! The planets are so happy to greet you they decided to move too close to each other just so that they could fit in a family portrait to show you. Also, so as not to dwarf their smaller siblings, the giants of the family had to move a lot farther from the camera.

Shown below is a more candid family portrait. Here, the planets are shown in their correct size relationships.

All planets great and small. (I know, Pluto should not be there.)

But how far are the planets with respect to each other? When I taught high school astronomy two years ago, I tried to draw a Solar System that’s to scale on our classroom’s white board. Good luck to me! I ended up either trying hard to include Jupiter in my drawing or attempting to carefully draw the crammed orbits of the inner planets just so that they’re distinguishable from each other. In the end, I used a number of steps to illustrate the relative distances of the planets to each other. (“If the Sun were here, then Mercury would be so and so paces away.”)

Before we go to the relative distances involved in our cosmic neighborhood, let us first have a word about the units we use to measure the Solar System.


Measuring the Solar System

The average distance of the Earth from the Sun is about 150 million kilometers. If you could fly to the Sun in a spacecraft that travels at three times the speed of sound, it would still take you more than 5 years to get there! So that we don’t have to be inconvenienced by humongous numbers in describing distances within the Solar System, astronomers invented the astronomical unit (AU). 1 astronomical unit is equal to 150 million kilometers, the average distance of the Earth from the Sun.


How Many Steps from the Sun?

Using the astronomical units, the distances of the planets from the Sun can be written in convenient, sizable numbers. These numbers are shown in the table below.

 Planet Average orbital radius (AU)

















The second column is labeled average orbital radius because a planet’s average distance from the Sun is indeed the (average) radius of its orbit.

Now, let us make our mini Solar System. Imagine the Sun to be where you are right now. (Better yet, imagine you are the Sun.) If you take 4 steps from your current position, you’d get to where Mercury is. To get to Venus, you have to take 7 steps from where you are, while you need to take 10 steps to get to the Earth. Meanwhile, you need to take a good 15 steps to get to Mars’ obit. So far, so good.

But wait, notice that to get to Jupiter, you need to take no less than 52 steps! Jupiter, it turns out, is more than three times as far from the Sun (that’s you) as Mars is. Why is there so much empty space in between Mars and Jupiter?

Well, as most of us know, the space between Mars and Jupiter is far from empty. Rather, the space is populated by a swarm of rocks called the asteroid belt. Some of the asteroids are so large they are considered dwarf planets. Many scientists think that they are rock fragments that failed to coalesce into a planet during the Solar System’s formation because of the constant gravitational tug of neighboring Jupiter.

But don’t imagine the asteroid belt to be a densely clustered group of flying rocks. Although the asteroids number by the hundreds of thousands, there’s plenty of space for them to distribute themselves in.

Asteroid Belt

Now let’s go back to our walk through of the Solar System. We learned that if the Earth is 10 paces from the Sun, then Jupiter is 52. Meanwhile, Saturn would be 96 paces from the Sun. Saturn is nearly ten times as far from the Sun as the Earth is! About twice as far out, at 192 paces, is Uranus. (No, I will not make a Uranus joke). Neptune, the farthest planet (yes, get over it), is 301 steps from the Sun.

As I am writing this, I am in a room whose biggest dimension is around a hundred steps (that’s “how far” Saturn is from the Sun). When I place textbook on one corner of this room (the “Sun corner”), I can hardly see it from the opposite corner (the “Saturn corner”). However, from the Sun corner, the positions of Mercury (4 steps), Venus (7 steps), Earth (10 steps) and Mars (15 steps) are literally within spitting distance. I highly doubt it if I can spit as far as the orbit of Jupiter (52 steps).


The Ends of the Solar System

Don’t worry, I did not forget about Pluto. Just because astronomers do not consider it a major planet anymore doesn’t mean I stopped loving it.

Before we “walk to” Pluto, let me first get this out: nothing “happened” to Pluto. No, it did not become a moon of Neptune. It did not even shrink. Above all, it did not become a star!

If you’re wondering why I had to say this, good for you. Many people – and I mean many – believe that something happened to Pluto to deserve its “demotion” from being a major planet to being a dwarf planet. And yes, some people think it became a star. (Well, in a sense, it became a ‘star’. But you know what I mean.)

Pluto and its twin, Charon, from the surface of Nix. Pluto's third moon, Hydra, is also within view.

I think the misunderstanding surrounding Pluto’s planethood (or stardom) reveals the natural human tendency to be essentialists. In other words, most people still think that to be a planet, one must have the essence of a planet – one must possess planetness. That truth, however, is that ‘planet’ is just another word for ‘biggish object orbiting a star’. In this case, the star is our Sun. And we get to decide how big is big. The problem with Pluto is not just that it’s really small, it’s that we found at least one other object orbiting the Sun that’s bigger than Pluto. That object is Eris, named after the goddess of discord and strife. Along with Pluto, Eris is part of the Kuiper Belt, a second belt of rocks orbiting the Sun. Most of the Kuiper Belt lies beyond the orbit of Neptune. Other members of the Kuiper Belt have names like Sedna, Xena (the warrior princess), Makemake and Haumea.

Eris and its moon, Dysnomia.

Artist's impression of the Kuiper Belt (courtesy of Don Dixon)

Now, let’s go back to our walk through. Recall that in our mini Solar System, you are the Sun. 10 steps away is the Earth, 52 steps is Jupiter and 301 steps is Neptune. Pluto is, on average, 395 steps from you. The Kuiper Belt starts at around 300 paces. To get to where Eris is, you have to walk 1,000 steps from where you are. If you think the Solar System ends there, then you couldn’t be more wrong. The Oort Cloud, a hypothetical body of rocks and comets, is no less than two thousand times farther from the Sun as the Earth is. That means that if the Earth is 10 steps from you, then the Oort Cloud is 20,000 steps away! Some astronomers even think that the heliopause, which could be thought of as the outer boundary of the Solar System, is no less than 500,000 steps away. The inner planets are indeed in the innermost part of the Solar System.

Oort Cloud


That concludes our overview of the vast dimensions in our own cosmic neighborhood. I hope the “walk through” inspired you to make a mini Solar System in your own backyard. And I hope that the next time you look up to the heavens, you will see the grandeur that held thrall all the great minds throughout the ages.


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RSVP to the 3rd Filipino Freethinkers Forum!

It’s been three years since the Filipino Freethinkers began their quest to uphold reason, science, and secularism (RSS) in the Philippines. To celebrate this fact and set the course for the future of RSS, we’re holding our 3rd official forum this Sunday, April 1, from 1:30 PM to 6:30 PM at Tech Portal Conference Rooms A and B at the UP-Ayalaland Technohub (directions here). Entrance is absolutely free–simply RSVP here!

Apart from presentations by FF’s various advocacy directors and allies, we’ll also be presenting very special awards to individuals who have truly championed reason, science, and secularism in recent years. Moreover, we’re also giving an extra-special award to the person voted Philippines’s Biggest Bigot 2012! Click here to cast your vote!

This is a special occasion for those of us who truly value our rights and our freedoms. Join us as we celebrate a new chapter for freethought here in the Philippines!

(Download the press release/press kit here.)

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Sin, Smallpox, and Sympathy: Why the Church Will Continue to Let Mothers Die

11 deaths a day. From a mere statistic it has become a mantra of the reproductive health (RH) movement. No matter how often it is repeated, 11 deaths a day still moves many to action and some to tears.

Yet the anti-RH — led by the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) and anti-choice Catholic organizations — doesn’t seem to care about 11 deaths a day. Some, such as Senator Sotto and his supporters, have more disparaging reactions, ranging from mere denial to outright ridicule.

Invariably, the anti-RH believe they are never responsible for 11 deaths a day. Yet even if they eventually realize that their anti-contraceptive position is indirectly responsible for thousands of maternal deaths — and even more due to AIDS and hunger, casualties that can also be minimized by effective contraception and sexual education — the realization wouldn’t make much of a difference.

Because for these anti-RH conservative Catholics, protecting human lives is not as important as respecting God. The act of disrespecting God — and the Church that claims to represent him — is called blasphemy:

Blasphemy is directly opposed to the second commandment. It consists in uttering against God – inwardly or outwardly – words of hatred, reproach, or defiance; in speaking ill of God; in failing in respect toward him in one’s speech; in misusing God’s name… The prohibition of blasphemy extends to language against Christ’s Church, the saints, and sacred things.
Catechism of the Catholic Church

The Gravity of Blasphemy

St. Thomas Aquinas, whose teachings also form the basis for opposing the RH bill, taught that blasphemy is a mortal sin punishable by death. For Aquinas, there’s no contradiction in killing someone for blasphemy, because he believed that blasphemy was even worse than murder:

If we compare murder and blasphemy as regards the objects of those sins, it is clear that blasphemy, which is a sin committed directly against God, is more grave than murder, which is a sin against one’s neighbor. On the other hand, if we compare them in respect of the harm wrought by them, murder is the graver sin, for murder does more harm to one’s neighbor, than blasphemy does to God. Since, however, the gravity of a sin depends on the intention of the evil will, rather than on the effect of the deed, as was shown above, it follows that, as the blasphemer intends to do harm to God’s honor, absolutely speaking, he sins more grievously that the murderer.

— St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica

If blasphemy is worse than murder itself, it is surely worse than merely letting mortals die. So it doesn’t matter if maternal deaths — or deaths due to poverty and AIDS — do infinitely more damage to people and the families they leave behind; no damage can be dealt to an immortal deity. What matters to Aquinas is the intention, not the effect; the gravity of the sin, not its actual consequences. Blasphemy must be avoided at all costs — even if the cost is suffering and death.

The Speckled Monster in Montreal

In 1885, one of the most horrible examples of avoiding blasphemy at the cost of human lives happened during the smallpox epidemic in Montreal, Canada. Smallpox was also called the “red death” and the “speckled monster” because of how it stained and ultimately killed its victims:

No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its Avatar and its seal –the redness and the horror of blood. There were sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution. The scarlet stains upon the body and especially upon the face of the victim, were the pest ban which shut him out from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow-men. And the whole seizure, progress and termination of the disease, were the incidents of half an hour.

— Edgar Allan Poe, The Masque of the Red Death

Although he wrote one of the most poetic descriptions of the disease, Poe was wrong about one thing: It was not fear of their appearance that kept the diseased from the aid and sympathy of their neighbors. It was dogma — the fear of blasphemy.

If the Catholic Church hadn’t used dogma to meddle with the government trying to contain the disease, many lives would have been saved. As James H. Marsh, editor in chief of The Canadian Encyclopedia, wrote, this is the real tragedy:

Smallpox is one of the most contagious and loathsome diseases ever to menace humanity. But the real tragedy of the smallpox epidemic in Montreal was that it was preventable. The practice of vaccination, developed by Edward Jenner in England in 1796, was so widespread and so successful that it was widely believed that the disease had been eradicated.

Deaths that can be prevented. By a scientific solution. That has already become so widespread and successful. Sound familiar?

Red Death and Reproductive Health

When it comes to the Catholic Church, history often repeats itself. Contraception is not the first scientific solution to a serious problem that bishops have blocked because they considered it blasphemous. Many examples of this meddling are recorded in Andrew Dickson White’s History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. The book chronicles how the Church prevented progress in several sciences — geography, astronomy, geology, archeology, anthropology, biology, meteorology, chemistry, physics, medicine, and many others.

In each instance, the story would be the same:

  1. Someone proposes a theory that is contrary to Church teaching — dogma, doctrine, or tradition.
  2. The Church does everything in its power — blackmail, torture, murder — to oppose inquiry into and development of the theory.
  3. Accepting or even considering the theory becomes difficult — especially when reputations and lives are at stake.
  4. After unnecessary delay, the scientific community — and then society in general — accepts the theory and develops it further.
  5. After even more delay, from years to centuries, the Church finally accepts the theory.

This pattern is especially pernicious when the Church hinders progress in Medicine. When it comes to medical progress, delay is measured not only in time wasted but in lives lost. The smallpox epidemic in Montreal struck me especially because it’s so similar to our RH experience. Below is White’s account interspersed with my comments, comparing Montreal’s experience with ours:

In that year [1885] the smallpox broke out with great virulence in Montreal. The Protestant population escaped almost entirely by vaccination; but multitudes of their Catholic fellow-citizens, under some vague survival of the old orthodox ideas [1 paste below the early protestant theological basis of the old orthodox ideas], refused vaccination; and suffered fearfully.

Many who have escaped Catholic brainwashing already use contraception effectively. More than their conservative counterparts, contraception users are capable of reaching their desired family size, avoiding HIV and AIDS, avoiding induced abortions, and preventing infant and maternal deaths.

When at last the plague became so serious that travel and trade fell off greatly and quarantine began to be established in neighboring cities, an effort was made to enforce compulsory vaccination. The result was, that large numbers of the Catholic working population resisted and even threatened bloodshed.

11 maternal deaths a day, 500,000 induced abortions a year, and 7 new HIV cases a day should be enough to convince us: the RH bill is badly needed. And unlike vaccination, contraception will not even be compulsory. Yet the resistance was just as intense: from misinformation and fear mongering to threats of revolution and civil disobedience.

The clergy at first tolerated and even encouraged this conduct [threatening bloodshed]: the Abbe Filiatrault, priest of St. James’s Church, declared in a sermon that, “if we are afflicted with smallpox, it is because we had a carnival last winter, feasting the flesh, which has offended the Lord; … it is to punish our pride that God has sent us smallpox.”

This is no different from religious leaders saying that HIV and AIDS are god’s punishment for promiscuity, homosexuality, and even contraception. This also reminds me of an anti-RH lecture, wherein the lecturer said that the disaster in Japan was sent by God to punish them for having population control.

The clerical press went further: the _Etendard_ exhorted the faithful to take up arms rather than submit to vaccination, and at least one of the secular papers was forced to pander to the same sentiment.

Rather than cooperate, the anti-RH threatened to react with revolution, civil disobedience, or by not paying taxes. And instead of just one secular paper pandering to the anti-RH, I’ve read several columnists and cartoonists whose opinion seems to be based on nothing but Catholic bias.

The Board of Health struggled against this superstition, and addressed a circular to the Catholic clergy, imploring them to recommend vaccination; but, though two or three complied with this request, the great majority were either silent or openly hostile.

Instead of helping the DOH educate those at risk, the CBCP and anti-choice organizations instead give out misinformation about contraceptives: they don’t work, they all cause cancer, they are abortifacients. They even said the RH Bill is worse than corruption.

The Oblate Fathers, whose church was situated in the very heart of the infected district, continued to denounce vaccination; the faithful were exhorted to rely on devotional exercises of various sorts; under the sanction of the hierarchy a great procession was ordered with a solemn appeal to the Virgin [2], and the use of the rosary was carefully specified.

By the time rosary was recommended, prayer had already been shown to be ineffective in other parts of the world. Inoculation and vaccination, on the other hand, had already saved countless lives. [3]

Maternal deaths, abortions, HIV, poverty — what does the Church recommend to solve today’s problems? Prayer. Faith, abstinence, natural family planning — we’ve tried these solutions and they’ve been shown to be inadequate at best, and outright failures at worst. And instead of just praying for solutions, the Catholic Church is even asking its flock to pray against the RH Bill, the most valid solution in sight.

Meantime, the disease, which had nearly died out among the Protestants, raged with ever-increasing virulence among the Catholics; and, the truth becoming more and more clear, even to the most devout, proper measures were at last enforced and the plague was stayed, though not until there had been a fearful waste of life among these simple-hearted believers, and germs of skepticism planted in the hearts of their children which will bear fruit for generations to come.

Like the other stories in White’s book, there was a happy ending for Montreal. But not before they paid the price. Smallpox is considered by many to be the most devastating disease known to man, killing more people than all other infectious diseases combined. The Catholic Church may not have known the extent of the devastation and the effects of their dogmatism then. But history and hindsight are now on their side.

True Blasphemy

They have a chance to learn from the smallpox tragedy for which they were indirectly responsible. But it seems they are content to continue committing the same mistakes. How much suffering and death must humanity pay before the Catholic Church finally learns that protecting human lives is more important than respecting an immortal God? And if there were a God, and if that God were good, I’m sure she’d agree.

If there were a good God, she’d take more offense at the Catholic Church’s hypocrisy: claiming to have the Truth while they continue to lie about contraception; claiming to be against corruption while they’re in cahoots with corrupt officials; claiming to be against poverty while they have billions they choose not to use for the poor; claiming to be experts on morality while they cover up and coddle clerical child abusers.

These hypocrites are the earthly representation of divine truth and righteousness? Now that’s blasphemy.

[1] Theological Opposition to Inoculation and Vaccination

Below are excerpts from History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom showing how dogma made it difficult to accept inoculation and vaccination:

Rev. Edward Massey, who in 1772 preached and published a sermon entitled _The Dangerous and Sinful Practice of Inoculation_. In this he declared that Job’s distemper was probably confluent smallpox; that he had been inoculated doubtless by the devil; that diseases are sent by Providence for the punishment of sin; and that the proposed attempt to prevent them is “a diabolical operation.”

Not less vigorous was the sermon of the Rev. Mr. Delafaye, entitled _Inoculation an Indefensible Practice_.

A large body of ministers joined in denouncing the new practice as “flying in the face of Providence,” and “endeavouring to baffle a Divine judgment.”
Having thus settled his case for this world, they proceeded to settle it for the next, insisting that “for a man to infect a family in the morning with smallpox and to pray to God in the evening against the disease is blasphemy”; that the smallpox is “a judgment of God on the sins of the people,” and that “to avert it is but to provoke him more”; that inoculation is “an encroachment on the prerogatives of Jehovah, whose right it is to wound and smite.”

Among the mass of scriptural texts most remote from any possible bearing on the subject one was employed which was equally cogent against any use of healing means in any disease–the words of Hosea: “He hath torn, and he will heal us; he hath smitten, and he will bind us up.”

So bitter was this opposition that Dr. Boylston’s life was in danger; it was considered unsafe for him to be out of his house in the evening; a lighted grenade was even thrown into the house of Cotton Mather, who had favoured the new practice, and had sheltered another clergyman who had submitted himself to it.

“It was good that Satan should be dispossessed of his habitation which he had taken up in men in our Lord’s day, but it was not lawful that the children of the Pharisees should cast him out by the help of Beelzebub. We must always have an eye to the matter of what we do as well as the result, if we intend to keep a good conscience toward God.” But the facts were too strong; the new practice made its way in the New World as in the Old, though bitter opposition continued, and in no small degree on vague scriptural grounds, for more than twenty years longer.

The steady evolution of scientific medicine brings us next to Jenner’s discovery of vaccination. Here, too, sundry vague survivals of theological ideas caused many of the clergy to side with retrograde physicians. Perhaps the most virulent of Jenner’s enemies was one of his professional brethren, Dr. Moseley, who placed on the title-page of his book, _Lues Bovilla_, the motto, referring to Jenner and his followers, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”: this book of Dr. Moseley was especially indorsed by the Bishop of Dromore. In 1798 an Anti-vaccination Society was formed by physicians and clergymen, who called on the people of Boston to suppress vaccination, as “bidding defiance to Heaven itself, even to the will of God,” and declared that “the law of God prohibits the practice.” As late as 1803 the Rev. Dr. Ramsden thundered against vaccination in a sermon before the University of Cambridge, mingling texts of Scripture with calumnies against Jenner;

[2] The Church’s Failed Smallpox Solution: Devotion to Mother Mary

At high mass, yesterday, in the Roman Catholic Cathedral, the Rev. Father Emard read the Papal decree, which is considered as applying to the smallpox epidemic in Montreal, and which was issued by his Holiness Pope Leo XIII… The decree alludes to the ravages of epidemic and plagues among the faithful throughout the world last year, and impresses upon Roman Catholics the efficiency of prayer in crushing these regrettable calamities.

New York Times Archives

To Mary, therefore, we must fly – to her whom rightly and justly the Church entitles the dispenser of saving, aiding, and protecting gifts – that she, graciously hearkening to our prayers, may grant us the help they besought, and drive far from us the unclean plague.


[3] The Effectiveness of Vaccination

In Berlin, during the eight years following 1783, over four thousand children died of the smallpox; while during the eight years following 1814, after vaccination had been largely adopted, out of a larger number of deaths there were but five hundred and thirty-five from this disease. In Wurtemberg, during the twenty-four years following 1772, one in thirteen of all the children died of smallpox, while during the eleven years after 1822 there died of it only one in sixteen hundred. In Copenhagen, during twelve years before the introduction of vaccination, fifty-five hundred persons died of smallpox, and during the sixteen years after its introduction only one hundred and fifty-eight persons died of it throughout all Denmark. In Vienna, where the average yearly mortality from this disease had been over eight hundred, it was steadily and rapidly reduced, until in 1803 it had fallen to less than thirty; and in London, formerly so afflicted by this scourge, out of all her inhabitants there died of it in 1890 but one. As to the world at large, the result is summed up by one of the most honoured English physicians of our time, in the declaration that “Jenner has saved, is now saving, and will continue to save in all coming ages, more lives in one generation than were destroyed in all the wars of Napoleon.”

— Andrew Dickson White, History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom

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The Filipino [Fr]eethinkers Sponsor Francium for the Mind Museum’s Periodic Table Exhibit


Carl Sagan once had to argue for the inclusion of visible light cameras on the Voyager spacecraft. It was deemed by NASA as wasteful since they’d only be able to record that narrow band of light visible to humans. But Sagan insisted on it. He knew that the images it would take would inspire a new generation of scientists to make even greater discoveries.

The endeavor of popularizing science is definitely a daunting one. Our culture has made science look cold and unromantic. Even science undergrads regularly call out any application of scientific reasoning to everyday events as nosebleed-inducing.

It is this sad culture of anti-intellectualism that projects like the Mind Museum aim to correct.

Finishing construction at Bonifacio Global City early next year, the Mind Museum will have 250 exhibits and five galleries, each specializing in a field of science—from the origins of the universe to the technology of one of its inhabitants.

We at Filipino Freethinkers support the vision of the Mind Museum to promote science among the general public. Because of this, we have sponsored an element on their Periodic Table Exhibit—element 87, Francium.  Like a freethinker in a Catholic country, Francium is one of the rarest naturally-occurring elements and, like the Filipino Freethinkers, has virtually no commercial application. Plus, we [Fr]eethinkers liked having [Fr] to ourselves, Breaking Bad style.

Help build The Mind Museum and sponsor some of the exhibits. Apart from the Periodic Table Exhibit, donors can also sponsor stars and even galaxies. Help inspire the next generation of scientists and freethinkers.

(Images from Mind Museum and Wikipedia)

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Vatican celebrates 30th AIDS anniversary with more bigotry

Did the Pope’s 2010 statement about condom use in exceptional cases show that he’s changed his mind about them? Is the CBCP defying the Vatican by denouncing the Reproductive Health Bill in spite of the Pope’s pronouncement? Between the CBCP and the Vatican, which old boys club is more bigoted? These questions are answered once and for all by the Vatican’s recent efforts at the 2011 High Level Meeting on AIDS.

But first, some background.

In June 1981, the AIDS epidemic was formally recognized in the US. Since then, medical professionals from all over the world have failed in their search for a cure. Prevention, they discovered, is our best bet.

And out of all prevention technologies invented so far, none have proven more effective than the condom. Medical authorities, including the UNAIDS, UNFPA, and WHO, agree: “the male latex condom is the single, most efficient, available technology to reduce the sexual transmission of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.”

But to the Pope, effectiveness alone is not enough. To him, contraception is always evil and should always be banned — even if it saves lives. And of the innumerable lives lost to AIDS, most have been those of Africans. Though they’re only 14.7% of the world’s population, Africa is inhabited by more than 88% of people living with HIV. In 2007, Africa had 92% of all AIDS deaths.

Which makes the Pope’s statements in a 2009 visit to Africa all the more disgusting. He said that “HIV/Aids is a tragedy that cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which can even increase the problem.”

To the Pope’s credit, he’s only being consistent. From the start, the Vatican has been lobbying to ban reproductive health programs all over the world, with no sign that they’ll ever change their position.

Then in late 2010, Pope Benedict XVI gave an interview to a German journalist for a book, Light of the World, an appropriate title because it gave a glimmer of hope. Catholics all over the world celebrated the Pope’s statements. “Finally!” they thought, “the Pope has changed his mind about contraception!” UNAIDS even made a press statement welcoming the Pope’s support for HIV prevention.

But most hopes were dashed when the Vatican clarified the Pope’s views, stating that his views on contraception have not shifted. I say “most” because many Catholics still cling to the possibility that the Pope’s statements mean more than they do, that there’s still a chance for change. Even now, some pro-RH Catholics argue that the CBCP is defying the Pope when it continues to denounce contraception. It’s happened more than once that I had to point someone toward the Vatican’s clarification.

If the Vatican’s words aren’t enough proof, their recent actions should be. Yesterday, 30 years into the AIDS epidemic, the 2011 High Level Meeting on AIDS started, serving as another opportunity for the world to “come together to review progress and chart the future course of the global AIDS response.” For the Vatican, it’s another opportunity to take a stand against reproductive health, medical progress, and women’s rights.

When it comes to choosing solutions, the standard for most members is effectiveness in the real world; for the Vatican, it’s adherence to instructions from Heaven. Here are just some of the suggestions made by the Pope’s “all-male team”:

  • stripping all references to sexual and reproductive health and rights from the meeting’s declaration
  • gutting all mentions of education and prevention other than marriage and fidelity
  • insisting that “families” be replaced with “the family”, as though that monolith even exists or that it provides some kind of magic shield against HIV
  • deleting all mention of “female-controlled prevention methods
  • deleting the following sentence: “… by ensuring that women and girls can exercise their right to have control over, and decide freely and responsibly on, matters related to their sexuality in order to increase their ability to protect themselves from HIV infection, including their sexual and reproductive health, free of coercion, discrimination and violence.”

We’ll find out in a few days whether these suggestions are integrated into the meeting’s declaration. But I believe it’s not too early to come to the following conclusion:

The Pope, with his bigoted bishops representing the Vatican, are an enemy of progress, not only in dealing with HIV and AIDS, but in promoting reproductive health, informed choice, and women’s rights.

I hope the Vatican’s actions help Filipino Catholics realize that the CBCP is not alone in their bigotry. The CBCP has no mind (of its own). All of their statements and actions are dictated by the Vatican. “You will know them by their fruit.

And I hope the UN ignores the Vatican’s representatives and realizes that inviting them is ultimately counterproductive. On second thought, maybe the Vatican’s objections can serve as useful indications: If the Pope protests, you’re probably onto something good.

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On Infrasound and the Supernatural

(Reposted with permission from here.)

I read in one of my books some time ago about the existence of infrasound; unfortunately, I don’t remember what book that is. Luckily, an article appeared in detailing the same phenomenon, so that means I have something to write about tonight.

I’ll cut to the chase: infrasound consists of a bass sound that is so low as to be nearly imperceptible to the human ear. When detected, infrasound causes affected humans to experience a wide range of effects, including anxiety, extreme sorrow, and chills. (Associated Press 2005)


Yes, I know I just used one of the scariest of all words when it comes to scientific research – “causes.” How dare I, you must be thinking – how dare I.

Unfortunately, I have the research to back it up. International Coolperson of Science Vic Tandy wrote two studies about the phenomenon. So what? Dear reader, the man did what no wuss could manage – actually feel and see a ghost, then go about discovering what made it possible.

It had nothing to do with Whoopi.

That’s just one guy, you might say. Never mind that he went to visit reputedly haunted sites with the goal of discovering whether or not the same infrasound frequencies which produced his experience were present; that he did find them matters not to me, for I believe in sample sizes and dependent variables!


Fine, I can dig that. You know who else can? Two Richards – one called Wiseman, another Lord. Despite the rather unfortunate-sounding names, these two Richards are real scientists; the Wiseman is a psychologist from the University of Hertfordshire, while the Lord is an acoustic physicist from the National Physical Laboratory in England.


The two English Richards constructed a seven-meter long infrasonic cannon and set it up in the Purcell Room, a concert hall in South London. They then invited 750 people to report their feelings after listening to pieces of contemporary music intermittently laced sound from the cannon, played a 17 Hz at levels of 6-8 decibels. The respondents indicated a 22% increase in unusual sensations, including those listed previously, whenever the infrasound was playing. The fun part? The same infrasound is suspected to be present in church organ music. Those cavernous, echoing halls and that massive contraption of steel pipe and hardwood? Infrasound.

Considering the suspected link between religious experience and conditions affecting the temporal lobe – an area of the brain with an important role in regulating hearing – I would like to be so bold as to suggest that maybe finding out the truths about our universe has more to do with listening than it does with looking.

The helmet comes with earmuffs.

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Hey, Ophiuchus

It all started when a newspaper in Minnesota published an article informing the public that they had to say hello to their new personalities.

It had, for some reason, gone viral. If you’ve been a good citizen of the internet lately, news of grand zodiacal realignment may have already reached your screen. Not only is there a shifting of the dates of the astrological signs, but a dark horse sign comes along. Just what is going on here?

From Wikipedia: an illustration of axial precessionThe Earth undergoes several quasi-periodic movements, including rotation on its axis and revolution around the sun. Of the many planetary motions*, axial precession is largely to blame for the change in zodiac signs.

Axial precession is the cyclical change in the orientation of a planet’s rotational axis. The rotational axis would more or less trace a small circle at the end of a cycle. Notice that the entire rotational axis of the earth would trace out a cone. If you happen to have a top right now, go ahead and spin it. Precession is the wobbling motion that becomes very obvious once the top is about to fall.

For the earth, precession is an extremely slow process, and the time it would take for its rotational axis to completely trace a circle would be about 25,772 years. Thus, the position of the stars that we see at night relative to where we see the sun in the sky changes gradually.

When Western astrology was first introduced by the Babylonians, the signs were based on which constellation the sun crossed when it rose**. Over the course of three thousand years, axial precession has caused the background stars to shift, leaving us with shifted zodiac dates as well. Perhaps Bill Nye can explain it better:

If this is the case, why then did the astrological system last as long as it did? Did astrology suddenly decide to drop its central dogma?

Astrology, like many other belief systems, branched out into different systems over time. Although we now have a multitude of ways one can interpret one’s birthday, we can group most of these astrological systems into either tropical or sidereal.

The tropical system is the most common twelve sign system with fixed dates for the signs. This is because it is based on the location of the equinoxes and solstices in the calendar. Though precession changes the dates of the equinoxes and solstices (which are dependent on the orientation of the earth’s rotational axis) slightly, it is corrected for during leap years***, and so the dates more or less remain constant.

The sidereal system uses the original system, and determines the zodiac sign based on what constellation the sun crosses upon rising. What the astrologer was mentioning on news were the mechanics of the sidereal system, which was being practiced by some astrologers all along.

Well that explains the shift in the dates, but what of Ophiuchus?

The sun had always been crossing Ophiuchus, even during the time when astrology was first written down. The sun would intersect with Scorpio and Ophiuchus for about eight days each, before to moving on to Sagittarius. Having thirteen signs was rather lopsided and awkward, and was difficult to properly match with other archetypes such as elements. So the Babylonians decided to eschew Ophiuchus and keep Scorpio, probably because Scorpio look more “aligned” with the other signs.

Several western astrological systems do use Ophiuchus though, further splitting the Sidereal system into either one that incorporates Ophiuchus or one that ignores it.

This recent zodiac sign crisis was no doubt a result of sensationalized media and distortion of information augmented by the force of the internet. Perhaps we should learn a bit more before taking the media’s word, or before heeding random predictions about behavior based on arbitrary shapes from a changing mural of stars.

An illustration of Precession and Nutation*Other planetary motions related to precession that could influence the ecliptic** include nutation and polar wander. Nutation is a repeated “nodding” of the earth, and causes the rotational axis to trace a circle with “frills” instead of a smooth circle.

Polar wander is when the geographic north pole, and therefore the south pole, slightly changes its position. Both these motions are very small and slow, and only make noticeable changes over a long time. There are many more quasi-periodic movements that the earth undergoes, and collectively these are known as the Milankovitch cycles.

From Wikipedia: The Earth in its orbit around the Sun causes the Sun to appear on the celestial sphere moving over the ecliptic (red), which is tilted on the equator (blue).

**The apparent path the sun takes across the sky as we see it from here on earth over the course of one revolution is called the ecliptic. In other words, the constellation that the ecliptic intersects with on that date is that day’s appointed zodiac sign. The ecliptic lies in the ecliptic plane. In the image to the right, The large red circle is the ecliptic.

The ecliptic gets its name from the fact that when the moon intersects with the ecliptic, an eclipse would occur. (if the moon gets in front of the sun’s path in the sky)

***Our leap days are there to correct how long it takes for the earth to revolve one period around the sun, which is approximately 365.25 days. This is known as a sidereal year. Due to planetary motions such as axial precession and nutation, we would notice that the dates and positions of the equinoxes and solstices would change, and therefore we would slowly see the seasons come earlier and earlier in the year. This would be rather disorienting for humankind, when snow starts falling in Japan in June. The effects of precession and nutation are corrected for, however. This explains the existence of an additional rule in determining leap years, where all years that are multiples of 100 are not leap years, unless they are multiples of 400. On average, the time it takes to get from one summer solstice to the next is about 365.242 days, slightly shorter than the sidereal year. This is known as a tropical year.

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Teleporting DNA

While it has been stunningly predictive and useful, quantum mechanics, because of its inherent peculiarity, has been a gold mine for new age hucksters such as Deepak Chopra. Albert Einstein himself couldn’t accept the theory which allowed for particles to take all possible paths from point A to point B and for cats to be both dead and alive at the same time. His aversion to this theory was immortalized in the quote, “God doesn’t play dice,” alluding to the strange universe ruled by random events that quantum mechanics was describing. To quote the physicist Richard Feynman, who made great strides in the field of quantum mechanics, “If you think you understand quantum theory, then you don’t understand quantum theory.”

Feynman’s fellow Nobel laureate, Luc Montagnier, who won the prize for establishing that AIDS was caused by HIV, recently published a paper, entitled “DNA waves and water,” which claims that through the use of electromagnetic fields, DNA molecules, the stuff of life, can “teleport” from one test tube to another. The mechanism this takes is, according to the paper, within the “framework of quantum field theory.”

Montagnier’s experimental setup included two test tubes, one containing pure water, and the other containing a highly diluted sample of a fragment of DNA from the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). After applying a 7 Hz electromagnetic field for 18 hours to both the tube that contained pure water, and the other tube that contained DNA, the tubes were then subjected to a process called polymerase chain reaction (PCR). This procedure takes DNA molecules present in a sample and copies them continuously, based on a particular defined DNA sequence. Their results showed that the pure water miraculously produced DNA, when there should have been none.

Here the two tubes (with DNA on the left, pure water on the right) are shown being exposed to a 7 Hz electromagnetic field inside a µmetal cylinder.

This is a stunning result—so stunning that it seems rather dubious. The claim posited here is that dilute quantities of DNA can somehow emit “DNA waves” via its natural electromagnetic field and that this signal mimics the exact DNA sequence of the source in water. This signal can supposedly imprint itself into water. Such an outlandish declaration just cannot avoid comparisons to homeopathy. The paper’s conclusion also favors a rather convoluted solution (DNA waves) over a much more simple explanation: contamination. The retention of an electromagnetic field in the absence of the signal source is, however, entirely possible within quantum mechanics, though only in the order of picoseconds (one trillionth of a second)—certainly not enough time for a PCR reaction to take place (which usually takes about an hour).

The nature of PCR is that it is so effective at making copies of DNA that even just one molecule of DNA can be amplified. Imagine thousands of photocopiers that randomly take any page in their vicinity and copy them. Even if you just had one page to be copied, such a sheet containing the letter “X”, you could create millions of copies of this letter in no time since the copies of that page will be used by the other photocopiers to make even more copies—a chain reaction. Now, let’s say that just one stray sheet with the letter “Y” accidentally flew into the copier room. By the end of your copying, you’d have yourself billions of sheets with either “X” or “Y”. That’s how even one tiny splatter of contaminating DNA (from instruments used or even one’s own hands) can ruin an experiment.

Messing up a PCR experiment is so easy that Montagnier’s observation has to be reproduced by other scientists before it can even be taken seriously. The only reason it seems to be grabbing headlines is that Montagnier is a Nobel laureate. But, Nobel laureates are vulnerable to the dreaded “Nobel disease,” when noted scientists who have won the prize later support pseudoscientific ideas.

The originator of PCR, Kary Mullis, also won the Nobel prize, only to go on to deny the link between HIV and AIDS. Another laureate, Linus Pauling, who won two Nobel prizes, promoted the quackery that vitamin C treated cancers and prevented colds, late in his career.

However, regardless of accusations of Nobel disease, Montagnier’s ideas shouldn’t be dismissed offhand. If his observations can be consistently replicated by other researchers (and contamination is ruled out), then a revolution will occur in biology and all of science. It’s a prospect one can’t help but be excited about, but wonder should always be coupled with skepticism.

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The Hermit Crab – A Christian/Creationist Nightmare

Remember that issue about the banana as an atheist nightmare. Ray Comfort from “Way of the Master” uses a banana to prove that God exists which turns out to be a big joke.

It just proved that Mr.Comfort just don’t have the idea what a wild banana looks like. It’s interesting that Ray Comfort claimed that the modern banana was created by God. The banana was domesticated thousands of years ago, and the modern banana was created by humans via selective breeding and cultivation. The bright yellow bananas that we know today were discovered as a mutation from the plantain banana by a Jamaican, Jean Francois Poujot, in the year 1836. He found this hybrid mutation growing in his banana tree plantation with a sweet flavor and a yellow color—instead of green or red, and not requiring cooking like the plantain banana.

Now let us talk about the hermit crab (Elassochirus gilli). Hermit crabs (both marine and terrestrial) are members of the Phylum Arthropoda, Subpylum Crustacea, Order Decapoda. Unlike their crab cousins, these hermits have soft abdominal exoskeletons. Now here’s the problem.

Christian/Creationist like Mr. Ray Comfort argues that life came from a “Great Designer” – someone who can design Mr. Comfort’s banana.

And who is this banana designer? Why…it’s Mr. Ray Comfort’s God of course – the God that you can read in the pages of the Christian Bible.

Now according to the Genesis account, this God created all living creatures (Gen. 1:24) and this God is…ehem…perfect (Deuteronomy 32:4), making all his creations perfect. In fact, God pronounced it “very good”.

Let us go back to the hermit crabs situation. Since hermit crabs have soft bellies, they will not survive without having something hard to cover their bodies. That’s why they need empty univalve mollusks shells in order to live.

I have some hermit crabs for pet (both marine and terrestrial) and believe me, without a shell to cover their asses; hermit crabs would die in less than an hour. Some hermit crabs will even kill snails just to get hold of that precious shell.

So what happened?

It seems this “perfect god” forgot to give the poor ol’ hermit crab a shell.

If Christian/Creationist like Ray Comfort and ex-child star Kirk Cameron are right about their God creating every creature living in this planet, then looking at a hermit crab only confirms the notion that this Bible-based god is a dimwit.

What is the purpose of these shells-less creature if having no shell will endanger its survival? Where’s the perfect design on that?

Maybe Mr. Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron can provide us the answer using the power of the Holy Spirit…or…we can accept the fact that this Christian creation story is just a myth. There are no hermit crabs in the Judean desert and the writers of the Genesis myth are ignorant of the existence of such beautiful crustaceans.

Pinoy Atheist

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Evolution: The Atheist’s Religion?!?

I’ve been posting on several discussion forums for a couple of years now, some of them have to do with atheism and non-belief, some are just regular hobby related forums (basketball, PC gaming, etc.). Every once in a while some believer will come barging in to the threads and start preaching their religion. As many of you would already know, any mention of atheism leads believers to talk about the Theory of Evolution.

One of my pet peeves is how Creationists claim that Evolution is not scientific; that it is somehow “evil” and that it goes against Christian teachings. In fact, they go about spreading lies and misinformation about it to such a degree that most people don’t understand what evolution really is anymore. It’s a sad fact that  less than half of Americans accept the fact of Evolution. Interestingly, according to this survey, a little over 60% of Pinoys accept evolution as fact. Perhaps it’s because Catholicism does not deny it. However, this may change soon as many American missionaries are more aggressively bringing their Fundamentalist brand of Christianity to our shores.

Here are some of the most common misconceptions being spread about Evolution:

Myth #1: Evolution teaches us that our ancestors were chimps! If you believe in Evolution, you believe your great great grandparents were chimps!

Answer: Wrong. We evolved from the same distant ancestor as chimps, not chimps directly. And in the broadest sense, we are related to chimps (We share more than 95% of our DNA with them). Monkeys are “cousins” of the Human species. But does that mean that WE are chimps ourselves? Of course not. We are human, our parents and grandparents are human, and so on and so forth for thousands of years back.

Myth #2: Evolution is EVIL-ution! Evolution preaches “survival of the fittest”, therefore it’s every man for himself!

Answer: Wrong. Evolution is a scientific theory. It explains how living things adapt to their environment. It does not make claims about morality, nor does it tell us what we should do with our lives. It explains how things are, not what it should be. Claiming that Evolution is wrong because it “teaches us to kill or be killed” is akin to saying that Gravity is wrong because it causes people to get hurt or killed from falling.

Myth #3: Evolution is “just a theory”.

Answer: In scientific terms, a “Theory” is not the same as the layman’s meaning of theory. What this myth is trying to say is that Evolution is just a” Hypothesis”. A Hypothesis is akin to an educated guess. For a Hypothesis to be promoted to a Scientific Theory, it must pass stringent scientific scrutiny, and must be well supported by evidence. Evolution has a mountainload of evidence supporting it, from across several scientific fields (Geology, Biology, Chemistry, Paleontology, etc). All it takes to destroy the Theory of Evolution is one single solid piece of evidence that goes against it. In the more than 150 years since Charles Darwin first published his book “Origin of Species”, none have come up.

Myth #4: Students are entitled to learn Creation as an alternative theory to Evolution. We must teach the controversy!

Answer: The first thing we must address here is that there is NO controversy (at least in the scientific world). Some scientists may disagree on some details, but there is no denying that Evolution is overwhelmingly accepted by the scientific community. 99.9% of scientists accept it as fact. Besides, if that is the stance they want to take, then we should teach other creation myths from other religions too. I’m willing to bet these Christian Fundamentalists will NOT allow that.

Secondly, Creation does NOT belong in the Science Class, simply because it is NOT science. Creationists are free to teach Creation in Religion Class where it belongs. It is an oft repeated lie that prayer is banned in public schools in the U.S. Students can pray all they want. What’s not allowed is school-sponsored prayer.

Myth #5: Evolution cannot explain how life began, therefore God must have done it!

Answer: Firstly, Evolution does not deal with how life began. That’s like blaming the washing machine for not keeping the lawn trimmed. Secondly, scientists already have a rough idea of how Abiogenesis occurred (nothing final and concrete, admittedly). Thirdly, just because we don’t know yet, doesn’t mean we will never know. And lastly, just because we don’t know how, doesn’t mean God did it. It only means we don’t know yet.

Myth #6: You cannot prove to me that God did not create us. Show me the proof!

Answer: It is almost impossible to prove a negative. As an exercise, please prove to me that fairies/Santa Claus/invisible magic dragons do not exist. You can’t, can you? Also, the burden of proof rests upon the claimant. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. Creationists are the ones making the extraordinary claim, therefore, they must be the ones to provide solid proof. So far they have shown ZERO evidence.

And finally,

Myth #7: Evolution is the Atheist’s Religion!

Firstly, atheists HAVE NO RELIGION, that’s why we’re called atheists.

Secondly, just because you accept the fact of evolution doesn’t mean you’re an atheist. Plenty of believers have no trouble reconciling their beliefs with the fact of Evolution. Take Kenneth Miller and Francis Collins as examples of devoutly religious people who accept evolution. Evolution does NOT invalidate belief in a god in general. It only refutes the literal interpretation of Genesis in the Bible (or of any creation story of any religion).

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The Most Advanced Ancient Book of All Time?

According to Christians…the Bible is advance…advance in what????

Let’s look at their claims:

“It is he that sitteth upon the circle of the earth, and the inhabitants thereof are as grasshoppers; that stretcheth out the heavens as a curtain, and spreadeth them out as a tent to dwell in…” (Isaiah 40:22)

And again…

(Amos 9:6) “The One who builds His upper chambers in the heavens And has founded His vaulted dome over the earth, He who calls for the waters of the sea And pours them out on the face of the earth, The LORD is His name.” (NASB)

Now is the Earth a dome?

In Isaiah 40:22 for example, the word “circle” doesn’t mean a spherical Earth. The word “chug” refers to a circle…a flat circle. Notice the word “tent” or “dome” in those verses. As specified in Amos 9:6, this vaulted dome or “raki’a” (See: Genesis 1:6-8) is what the ancient Hebrew believe to cover the entire world. It is said that this solid vault or dome held the Sun, the moon and the stars (Gen.1:14-19; Psalms 19:4, 6) and it also provided the boundaries to the divine (Job 22:14 and Proverbs 8:27)

It also separated the water “above” from the water “below”. In fact according to these ancient Hebrews the blue color of the sky was attributed to the chaotic waters above the dome. This solid dome has windows and trap doors in which it release the rain and snow when opened (Gen. 7:11, Isa. 24: 18 and Mal. 3:10)

According to rabbinic traditions, in Nachmanides Commentary on Torah (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman 1194-1270) “Let the expanses become fixed; for although the heavens were created on the first day, they were still in fluid form, and they become solidified only on the second day when the Divine said “Yehee Raqiyaa.” (Also see: Nachmanides (Raban), Commentary on the Torah, vol. 1, pp. 33, 36.)

This is clearly not scientific foreknowledge.

Now here’s something real funny.

According from a certain site owned by a certain Eliseo Soriano…the Bible have the forknowledge regarding the use of crying. Now can that only be found in the pages of the Bible? My papaya naman! It is ancient folk wisdom that crying is good for our health. It isn’t new. Practitioner’s of folk wisdom have routinely encouraged people to allow themselves to cry comforting the suffering soul that ‘ a good cry will help you feel better’.

For example:
The ancient Hawaiians assert there are two chemical reactions within the human body that can accomplish Reconnection with Source Oneness. The first is the “sacred tear” beneath our sadness and hopelessness. Beneath that tear lies the second chemical reaction, said to be more powerful than all the healing agents known to humankind. It comes “out of the blue” with the power of a jackhammer, shattering the seriousness of the entire human estate. A power instantly freeing and balancing to all the body’s chemistry. This is the power of laughter. When it comes in this manner, it comes through the “na’au” (gut level) and will pierce the hopelessness of any situation or attitude. It is not a power to be taken lightly, for the ancient Hawaiians say it holds the chemistry of immortality and will instantly heal any terminal disease. It’s said to be the “laughter of God” which shatters the ridiculousness of hopelessness.

Let’s talk about history:

One of the best weapons used by Christians to confirm the Bible story is Hezekiah’s Tunnel. According to them the discovery of the tunnel built by King Hezekiah authenticates the passages written in the book of Kings. 2 Kings 20:20 states that Hezekiah, “Made the Pool and the conduit and brought water into the city” and in 2 Chronicles 32:30 that he closed the upper outlet of the waters of Gihon and directed them down to the West side of the City of David. This refers to the tunnel which connects the ‘Spring of Gihon’, through the rock to the reservoir called the Pool of Siloam.

“And the rest of the acts of Hezekiah, and all his might, and how he made a pool, and a conduit, and brought water into the city, are they not written in the book of the chronicles of the kings of Judah?” 2 Kings 20:20

“And when Hezekiah saw that Sennacherib was come, and that he was purposed to fight against Jerusalem, He took counsel with his princes and his mighty men to stop the waters of the fountains which were without the city: and they did help him. So there was gathered much people together, who stopped all the fountains, and the brook that ran through the midst of the land, saying, Why should the kings of Assyria come, and find much water?” 2 Chronicles 32:2-4

“This same Hezekiah also stopped the upper watercourse of Gihon, and brought it straight down to the west side of the city of David. And Hezekiah prospered in all his works.” 2 Chronicles 32:30

It was discovered in 1838 when it was explored by the American traveller, Edward Robinson, and his missionary friend Eli Smith.

Let me get this straight, just because something was discovered by archeologists means the whole Bible is literally true. Let me share to you this quote:

In summary, the Bible is not a book of history, yet it contains history and culture, which is more or less borne out by archeology. It’s a book of teachings, and it’s the ideal way to learn the patterns of history. And if we understand that the reason why we’re learning history is to learn lessons, then we have to pay extra special attention to what is going on in the Bible.

Christians are well delighted when archeological proof confirms parts of their beliefs. However, since parts of the Bible are historically true still does not make that the rest of the Bible is true as well. The Bible is still not an accurate history book. It tells about some stories about people and events that might happen in the past and were confirmed by archeologists, but still, the fact of the matter, the Bible should not be in use as historical actuality and that the stories in the Bible are NOT metaphors from which facts can be dig out by the reader.

So let us talk about the tunnel, According to Bible scholars, the book of Kings and Chronicles was written possibly between 450 and 435 BCE. There are even some suggestions that these books were written hundred of years after the events took place (See: I Chronicles 9:1-3). The said tunnel was already been constructed before 701 BCE during the reign of Hezekiah. That means the tunnel already existed when both books were being wrote. Obviously the story was already known by the writers and they just incorporated it on their narratives.

I can think of a lot of historical facts that were incorporated in fiction. For example Cold Mountain by Fraszier is historically accurate as to the civil war events but the tale is fiction. There are others like Les Miserables, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Noli Me Tagere and Floeante and Laura. The settings are true facts but don’t tell me that Crisostomo Ibarra and Maria Clara are real persons.

Pinoy Atheist

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The Uniqueness of Humans

Robert Sapolsky, renowned neurobiologist, explains how we are not as unique in the animal kingdom as we like to think.

Begin at the 4:50 mark; it’s a long intro, but a very enlightening lecture.

Posted in ScienceComments (5)