Pale Blue Dot 2.1

In this rare image taken on July 19, 2013, the wide-angle camera on NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has captured Saturn’s rings and our planet Earth and its moon in the same frame.

I think we can call this Pale Blue Dot 2.1. Version 1 was the original snapped from Voyager 1 on Carl Sagan’s suggestion back in 1990 and to which my song Pale Blue Dot is an homage. Version 2.0 was taken by Cassini in 2006. So the “wave to Saturn” photo captured on the 19th July 2013, is 2.1. It does put us in our place, adds some serious perspective and should remind us that, in Sagan’s words:

Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

Brings a lump to my throat every time I read those words or tell other people about them.

via Space Images: The Day the Earth Smiled: Sneak Preview – NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.

Why your personal CAM story is not evidence

Your regular doc was ignoring your symptoms or told you to take a couple of aspirin and come back if the problem persists, so you headed to a practitioner who treats you holistically, who understands, who knows what you specifically need for your specific condition. You swallowed their talk of spectral quantum chi rebalancing with latent fascia therapy or whatever and you got better. Yay!

Spinning a Yarn - Photo by 雷竞技官网
Spinning a yarn does not evidence make

Well, there are numerous reasons why you shouldn’t assume it was the spectral fascia therapy that did the trick.

The primary weakness of anecdotes as evidence is that they are not controlled. This means hidden variables might be at play, but you will never know for sure.

Science-Based Medicine offers some specific factors that make it impossible for practitioners and patients to know for sure that taking such and such a “remedy” has treated their “condition” real or imagined, whether or not it did nothing at all or whether the “placebo” effect is at play.

Regression to the mean: Many diseases/disorders fluctuate in symptoms, if you get a CAM remedy when you have severe symptoms and they wane is that just random fluctuation or the treatment, how would you know?

Many illnesses are self-limiting, which means intervening with CAM, or anything else, is generally pointless but will give you a false sense that the treatment helped as you get better.

Multiple treatments: Often people will try multiple treatments for a disease or ailment making it impossible to tell which treatment had a beneficial effect, if any.

Dead men tell no tales (the problem of reporting bias): Survivor groups for potentially lethal diseases do not have dead members. If you die of that disease, regardless of treatment, you won’t be around to tell people how it all went. But, those who do survive (regardless of lethal disease or not) are more likely to tell others about how a particular treatment helped them, those it fails will rarely brag about their experience.

Vague outcome measures: Good clinical trials use objective outcome measures — those that are binary (like death or survival), quantitative (like a blood level), or are based upon a specific physical finding. Anecdotes do not make good outcome measures because they require that judgements be made by patient or practitioner.

The Placebo Effect: The placebo effect is actually a host of many effects that give the appearance of a response to an inactive treatment. Without a control experiment (where a patient with the same symptoms are given a dummy treatment that looks real) to test for this effect, it is impossible to know whether the original treatment is snake oil or panacea. The above applies to all forms of treatment whether you think of them as alternative or conventional, but it’s only in conventional medicine where the principles are applied snakeoil sales reps tend to ignore evidence and rely on anecdote.

via The Role of Anecdotes in Science-Based Medicine « Science-Based Medicine.

There is an argument that “if it works, why does it matter?” Well, that’s fine, if you feel it’s worth paying for sugar pills and water and the placebo effect kicks in and you do feel better for it. But, practitioners of non-evidence-based medicine may convince you that their approach is best all the while the underlying cause of a condition may be worsening. There’s only so much the placebo can do. Many alt practitioners also tout protective treatments for malaria, HIV, cancer and other potentially lethal conditions. Again, it’s very unlikely a placebo will do anything more than lull someone into a false sense of security often leading to their early demise.

Now, I have an anecdote of my own.

A close relative with lower leg pain and numbness was told by her regular doctor to take some painkillers and see how things progressed. Opted to see a chiropractor who would do all kinds of manipulations over the course of many months at $100 per half hour session. Before first treatment, pain and numbness got so bad, saw doctor again, was rushed to hospital. Turned out it was the potentially fatal, often crippling nerve-destroying immunological disorder Guillain—Barré syndrome (GBS), which can only be treated with intravenous immunoglobulin to destroy the damaging white blood cells attacking the nerves. No amount of hand-waving woo, sugar pills, chi, or quantum therapy would have saved my relative from otherwise inevitable paralysis, respiratory collapse or worse…

Satisfying your curiosity

SN94_M_infectionLatest science news in my fortnightly column for, now online:

Steroid infection: Steroids are often injected into sites along the spinal column in treating back pain, but if a batch is contaminated serious infection can arise. Researchers have demonstrated that magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) at the site of injection could be used to identify fungal spinal or paraspinal infection, allowing early pharmacological or surgical intervention to reduce the risk of serious complications. via Back to basics.

Mars – The bigger picture: Images recorded by NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover and sent back to Earth have been composited into what is the equivalent of a 1000 megapixel photograph of the surface of the Red Planet. The image offers armchair astronomers and others an opportunity to examine the Martian landscape in much greater detail than ever before. via The bigger picture.

Liquid colour: Researchers in Japan have used NMR spectroscopy to study liquid materials with excellent light stability based on the skeleton of the organic fluorescent dye anthracene that could be used for full-colour tuneable luminescent systems. via Tuneable colours.

Portable detection: The optical technique of surface-enhanced Raman scattering (SERS) has been used to detect signs of infection in tissue samples before patients even show symptoms of viral disease. The system could be further developed into a portable lab-on-a-chip (LoC) devices for use in the clinic with potential for applications in the developing world. via Portable infection: SERS detection.

Lip up: Fatty lipid molecules in the human body act not only as energy storage molecules and structural elements but are also important signalling compounds. Lipids with their head in a molecular cage have now been used to study such molecules and their roles in diseases such as atherosclerosis and diabetes. via Lip up: Fatty molecules investigated.

Fuel matters: Altering the crystalline structure of cellulose from its native form to another can lower its binding partition coefficient for fungal cellulose enzymes by 40-50% but surprisingly boost hydrolytic activity. This new finding could thus help open the road to more efficient enzymatic production of biofuels from biomass rather than petroleum. via Insights into enzymatic conversion.