Sunday, January 23, 2005

She blinded me... with science!

Excerpt from recent email from a friend:

... we were on the way back into the big mall complex proper [at the Flatiron Mall in Denver, CO], passing by various stores in the outdoor section. We were passing by a spa that I had barely registered in my brain on the way to lunch--they had a dry erase board with a listing of their services, such as Botox and facial waxes. I forgot about it as soon as I passed it.

Well, *this* time, ____ pointed out an item midway down the board, which said, "DNA STEM CELLS".

I stared at it, racking my brain for any recollection of salon stem cell use, but came up dry. So I walked in, and asked the three women of various ages, in lab coats, for more information. The older of the trio, a middle-aged woman with wavy blonde hair, said, "You have stem cells in your skin, and as you age, those stem cells don't work as well. We replenish your stem cells using bovine stem cells from amniotic fluid to rejuvenate the skin."

"... Bovine?"

"Yes, because they are the most similar, molecularly, to our own."

"Ah. .... and, um, how do you, uh, apply, these stem cells?"

"We massage them into the skin." (Demonstrating, waving her fingers in circles around her face without quite touching the skin.)

"... So, you're saying that you ... replenish ... the stem cells ... by topical application?"


" ... I see. ... Yes. ... Thank you, have a nice day."

I left the spa and joined ____ outside, and walked a bit before practically collapsing with laughter and trying to keep myself from having an aneurysm. It would have been fun to delve deeper, just to see (such as: how do you keep these stem cells? Exactly how do the stem cells cross the epithelial barrier? What molecules, really, are you talking about?), but I had stuff to do.

My friend, who is a developmental biologist, subsequently sent me a link to Clinique Reneux's "CryoStem Skin Therapy™" FAQ, which contains much hilarity.

UPDATE: On further Googling, it appears that this scam is perpetrated by "The DNA Health Institute" (warning: odious Flash page), a company led by erstwhile homeopathic charlatan Noel Aguilar, "Ph.D.". "Dr." Aguilar has evidently gotten tired of giving talks at Rotary Clubs and writing "forwards" [sic.] for books on "magnetic healing". I would be very interested to know where Noel Aguilar got his Ph.D., and in what field, and what his thesis was. If he actually is a Ph.D., that means his doctoral thesis is on file in some university library somewhere, and you should be able to order a copy. I suspect it would be "interesting" reading --- in sociology, or English, or some other field completely unrelated to cellular biology.

Note, also, that the CryoStem literature suggests the treatment has received FDA approval. However, a search through the FDA's catalog of approved drugs for "cryostem", "cry", and "stem" reveal no hits --- even though the claims made for CryoStem definitely meet the (B) clause of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, section 201(g)(1)'s standard for drugs: "articles (other than food) intended to affect the structure or any function of the body of man or other animals". If promoters of this drug are not simply lying outright, but merely stretching the truth, then the most they could have done is submit reports indicating that CryoStem meets the minimal safety requirements for cosmetics, with no evaluation of efficacy. (Drugs must be both safe and effective; cosmetics need only be safe, or carry a warning label).

Incidentally, this all serves as further evidence for my working hypothesis that only charlatans or the incredibly insecure actually write "Ph.D." after their name, or call themselves "Dr." (unless they are licensed, practicing medical doctors). Go to any top ten university department in any field, and you'll find few people who do either, except as a joke, or when they need to impress somebody especially thickheaded (e.g., Congress).

UPDATE': In comments, Inky notes:

I looked at the Rotary Club link. It says that:

Today there is a Hahnemann Medical College of Homeopathy. Dr. Aguilar attended, and earned a degree there.


Also: apparently the majority of homeopathic .. erm, instituions, are either named after Hahnemann, the founder of homeopathic quarkery. Otherwise, they conveniently put in "Homeopathy", like the Canadian Academy of Homeopathy.

Thus, there is not just *one* Hahnemann Medical College of Homeopathy. Locations gleaned from the first page of Google searches include: Pennsylvania, Heikunst, New Delhi, and Bhopal. I suppose Dr. Aguilar went to PA.

Also, a correspondent helpfully writes, via email:

According to _Dissertation Abstracts_, nobody named Noel Aguilar has received a Ph.D. from an accredited North American institution --- and their records go back to some point in the 1800s. In fact there are only 140 Aguilars in their data base, which includes some European schools (I don't know since when but at least since the 1990s), and none of them have names which could plausibly be versions of Noel Aguilar, e.g., "N. Aguilar". So there are three possibilities: (1) He got his degree abroad. (2) He got his degree from a non-accredited institution. (3) He just made it up.

Therefore, I conclude that "Dr." Aguilar most likely got his "degree" from a non-accredited school specializing in homeopathy.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Belated resolutions

Will complete bulk of thesis research so I can graduate in 2005-2006 academic year.

Will donate larger fraction of income to charitable organizations.

Will limit blog-reading to two times a day, or fewer.

Will strive for more generosity of spirit and less petulance in my blogging.

Will publish one, preferably two conference papers.

Will learn how to deal with conference deadlines without skipping the gym, spurning my friends, and generally dropping off the face of the Earth.

Will buy and read:

Sunday, January 09, 2005 annual question

I'm a bit behind on this one, but's annual question is up, and it's great as usual. They got 120 very smart people to answer the question: "What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?" If you want to read them all, in no particular order, start here start midway down the first page; I'm already floored by the second one on the second page, Stanislas Dehaene's notes on the comparative neurology of primates.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

A reply to Pascal's Wager

A recent post by P. Z. Meyers mentions, among other things, Pascal's Wager. There are a number of standard replies, which the Wikipedia article mentions. The following reply applies to a fairly general version of Pascal's Wager, in which we assume that belief without evidence has some cost but it's outweighed by the negatively infinite cost of disbelief.

It is possible that there is an army of invisible dragons on the far side of the Moon that are preparing to mount an attack that will lead to the extinction of humanity. These are highly technologically advanced dragons, which is why we have not detected their existence. Plus they are invisible. Now if the invisible dragon army exists, we had better pour all of our social resources into mounting a massive thermonuclear assault on the far side of the Moon, because if we don't get them before they get us, we are all going to go extinct. Clearly, there are four distinct possibilities:

  1. The dragons do not exist, and we do not believe in them. In this case, OK, we pretty much go about our lives as we do now.
  2. The dragons do not exist, and we believe in them. In this case, we waste some societal resources in nuking the Moon, but at least we get to survive.
  3. The dragons exist, and we believe in them. In this case, yay! We nuke the dragons and we get to survive.
  4. The dragons exist, and we do not believe in them. Holy crap, now we are in some deep shit, because when the dragons attack, we are all doomed, doomed!

This is, you will note, basically isomorphic to Pascal's Wager. Now, if you look at these four possibilities, you would conclude that we had best get started nuking the dark side of the moon, post haste.

Except --- holy shit --- what if the evil army of invisible dragons is actually on Mars, and the dark side of the Moon is, in fact, populated by twinkly Tinkerbell fairies whose magical fairy dust is the only weapon that can kill an invisible dragon! After all, these dragons are magical --- they already live on the dark side of the Moon, and a massive wave of high-intensity radiation may just bounce off their hide. Now we are into some deeply heavy shit, because having bought into our former analysis, we are investing major social resources in nuking the Moon, but if we nuke the Moon we are all doomed because the fairies will all be vaporized. And holy cow, how do we know that the fairies are on the Moon, and the dragons are on Mars? What if the dragons are on the Moon, and the fairies are on Mars? Now we've got a head-spinning vortex of possibilities:

  1. The fairies exist on the dark side of the Moon, the dragons exist on Mars, and we believe in them. In this case, we send some fairy-harvesters to the Moon to gather up all the fairy dust, plus we need to build some fairy-dust-crop-dusters that can function in the Martian atmosphere. We dust the dragons and yay! We survive!
  2. The fairies do not exist, but the dragons do exist; but the dragons live on Mars, and not the Moon, and we choose not to believe in any of it. Now the dragons are going to come get us, and we are all doomed, doomed!
  3. The fairies exist, and they live on Mars, but the dragons do not, but we believe that the dragons exist and the fairies do not. In this case, we will probably nuke the Moon, but the fairies live on Mars, so no harm no foul. Plus we didn't even need the fairies to begin with, since the dragons do not exist.
  4. The fairies exist, and they live on Mars, and the dragons live on the Moon, but we believe only in the dragons and not the fairies. In this case, we will end up nuking the moon; but --- damn! --- we still die, because we do not realize that the only way to defeat the dragons would be to mount a Mars mission to gather magical fairy dust.
  5. The fairies live on the Moon, the dragons live on Mars, and ---

Wait a second. What if the dwarves who have lived underground in Caucasus Mountains since the dawn of time could forge us an enchanted sword, with which our chosen champion could command the dragons? In that case, we had better pour all of our resources into invading the Caucasus Mountains and contacting the dwarves, before some random terrorist stumbles upon the hidden cave entrance and says the Word of Power that unlocks the gate that has been shut for countless millennia. Because if some terrorist stumbles on the hidden cave entrance and speaks the Word of Power, we are all fucked. Plus, we need to maintain military hegemony over the world indefinitely, and if we could command the invisible dragons, we would basically have military hegemony sewn up.

Man, I never knew that computing a simple wager would be so difficult. I'm beginning to lose track. I mean you've got the dragons and the fairies and the dwarves, and holy shit what about the starfaring guild of alien wizards? What about the Ancient and Venerated Order of Elephant Shamans? What about the Conspiracy of Snowboarding Yetis? What about the Creeping Evil from Beyond Space and Time? This matrix of possibilities is growing exponentially with every sentence. But basically, the point is, in most cases, you're better off believing that everything exists, because what if it does? HMMMMMM? WHAT IF IT DOES EXIST? Then we are all FUCKED. So believe, motherfucker, believe, before the Teddy Bear Von Neumann Probe From Alpha Centauri turns the entire solar system into a bazillion cute and cuddly polyester toys.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

D. Neiwert on eliminationist rhetoric

Orcinus is back for the new year, with a note about the escalation in right-wing eliminationist rhetoric since the last election. Many liberals (and moderate conservatives) tend to be generous of spirit, to grant their opposition (and more extremist allies) the benefit of the doubt: They can't really be all that bad. This is a form of denial, probably fed, in part, by the fact that most liberals live amongst other liberals, and so have little firsthand experience with mainstream conservatives.* However noxious you believe the right wing is, it is probably even more noxious than you believe.

* Incidentally, this fact also leads to a tendency, among liberal intellectuals, to believe that ill-informed left-wing yahoos and wrongheaded liberals are actually a significant problem in the grander scheme of things, and to spend vastly more time attacking left-wing yahoos and liberals than is really warranted. The anarchist pacifist vegan activist with seven piercings who believes that the United States should never intervene militarily in other nations for any reason whatsoever is incorrectibly wrong, no doubt, but also fundamentally powerless and irrelevant. The mainstream liberal who has some misperceptions about the effects of free trade on labor can be reasoned with. But the conservative author with sales rank 10,025 (meaning more than one copy sold per day), who regularly gets talking head appearances on Fox News, gives regular lectures all across the country, and defends the use of ethnic concentration camps is simultaneously incorrigible and influential; and she's just one creature in the endless menagerie of horrors that is the modern right-wing movement.