May 8 – Medicine


Out topic this week is medicine. A lot of this post is also covering pseudoscience which was our topic last week, but there is a lot of overlap.


There are a lot of supplements and there are a lot of claims made about them. However it is always important to treat such claims with skepticism. If you aren’t aware, you do NOT need to prove a supplement is effective in order to sell it. You just have to show it is “Generally Regarded As Safe.” This chart is probably the most comprehensive I’ve ever found that looks at various supplements and how much research there is to support their claims.

Note that each bubble represents only one claim, but a supplement can be listed multiple times. For example, according to this chart, there is strong evidence that garlic helps with heart disease so it is near the top of the page, but there is less compelling evidence that garlic is helpful for cancer prevention, so that bubble is below the “Worth It” line.


Science-based Medicine has a pretty thorough overview of the claims and lack of evidence for acupuncture.



In 1998, Andrew Wakefield published a study linking autism to vaccinations. The results of that study were never reproduced. This underlies the difference between “a study” and “the literature.” Technically the process of peer-review was successful, since the study was reviewed and found to be lacking (and there was strong evidence that he falsified data and made other fraudulent claims). The journal officially retracted the study and he has been barred from practicing medicine in the UK.

Despite the continued refutation, the anti-vaccine movement has been picking up steam in recent years due to endorsements by “celebrities” (like Jenny McCarthy) and “activists” (like Robert F. Kennedy Jr.).

As a result of this media attention, vaccination rates have fallen in Europe and the US and this may have led to increase in preventable diseases.


Stanislaw Burzynski

If you are interested in how long pseudoscience can be sustained without ever having to prove itself, there is Stanislaw Burzynski. He has been treating cancer patients since the 1970s despite having no specialty training in oncology or internal medicine.

Here is some details about the “treatment” he claims is effective for cancer patients.

Here is some information about the man himself and how he got started.

Right to Try Laws

This also leads to “right to try” laws that are being proposed in several states (and now federally). Basically, certain organizations want to be able to sell their treatments to terminally ill patients without going through the proper testing.

If you are unfamiliar, a typical clinical trial will have multiple phases of testing for safety, efficacy, and side effects.

However, several states want to short circuit this system and allow terminally ill patents to try “investigatory” methods that have not completed the full cycle of trials. The thinking is that there are effective drugs stuck in the testing phase and the process may take too long for people sick today. However, this ignores the fact that most drugs aren’t shown to be effective by the time they end the full trial process. Also, the “right to try” laws focus on drugs that have only passed the Phase I testing, which is problematic because those trials don’t necessarily find all the complications or side effects.

In short, Phase I trials only test for toxicity in small groups (as few as 20 people) and they can’t really make any conclusion about the efficacy of the drug. Most drugs that pass this phase still don’t pan out as effective.

“Think of phase I trials as a screening test looking for the most obvious toxicities, with phase II and III studies confirming them. Indeed, even phase III trials can’t always adequately demonstrate that a drug is safe; it’s not uncommon for less common adverse effects not to show up until post-marketing surveillance, when much larger numbers of patients receive the drug. Moreover, only 5% of all cancer drugs that enter clinical testing are ultimately approved for patient use.”

And there are attempts to create similar laws on the federal level.

It ultimately comes down to an ethical question. Is it right to sell people medicine that hasn’t been shown to be effective?

April 10 – Atheist PR

This week’s meeting topic is Atheist PR. We could discuss the social stigma of atheism, how to counter negative stereotypes, or how to reach out and participate in the community as atheists. This is a timely topic considering we have Picnic Day and our first AgASA-hosted event of the year coming up soon. So we can also discuss how to best promote our club on campus.

To that end, we are also going to be creating posters and maybe t-shirts at this meeting. We’ll be providing some fabric markers, so we encourage you to bring a t-shirt for yourself, and you can work on that during the meeting.

Thursday, April 10th @ 6:10PM
Hart 1116

As mentioned above, AgASA will be fundraising on Picnic Day, Saturday April 12th. We will likely have a bake sale to raise money for our guest speakers, and also provide some fun, interactive, sciencey activities. So stop by the Student Organization Faire on the Quad. It’ll be a lot of fun.

Here are some articles on this topic that might be worth a read.

There have been many studies showing that people distrust atheists more than any other group.

This doesn’t help the public perception of atheists as arrogant or pompous.

However, there have been many public awareness campaigns to try to improve the image of atheists.

So if any of that is of interest to you, please stop by our meeting.

March 6 – Is Religion Beneficial or Harmful to our Society?

Our meeting topic this week gets right to the point, so I will as well.

Christopher Hitchens’ book, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, is one of the most well known arguments on the side of religion as harmful. He participated in many debates, but one in particular is worth watching. The topic was “The Catholic Church is a force for good in the world.” For the motion: Archbishop John Onaiyekan and Ann Widdecombe. Against the motion: Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry.

As always, it’s much more interesting to hear opposing views, so I found a few articles that seek to list some of the benefits of attending regular religious services.

Religion Is Good For All Of Us, Even Those Who Don’t Follow One

The Benefits of Church

There is also a book called “America’s Blessings: How Religion Benefits Everyone, Including Atheists”. It’s basically about why religionChristianity … Evangelical Christianity is what makes America so great, even to the benefit of atheists. It’s hard to dispute claims like that.

Last Meeting

This will be the last official meeting of the quarter. We will likely have something going on next week, but we don’t have any details yet, so just keep an eye on the Facebook page.

February 27 – The Education System

Our meeting topic this week is the education system. This is a topic that was brought up in several meetings last quarter, so we’ve dedicated an entire conversation to it. Education is a very broad topic, so there are a lot of different facets that can be covered and several directions this conversation can go. As such, I thought it might be a good idea to break up this topic into a few different posts.

Part 1 – Evolution

Part 2 – Politics

Part 3 – The Future of Education

As always, everyone is welcome and we hope to see you there.

The Education System: Part 3 – The Future of Education

Our meeting topic this week is the education system. This is a topic that was brought up in several meetings last quarter, so we’ve dedicated an entire conversation to it. Education is a very broad topic, so there are a lot of different facets that can be covered and several directions this conversation can go. As such, I thought it might be a good idea to break up this topic into a few different posts.

Learning Styles Myth

While looking up how new technology is impacting education, I often came across the idea that students who have different “learning styles” would be served by these new techniques. But after a little bit of research, I found that there isn’t much evidence that customizing education to fit a student’s preference increases their learning of the material. Students do have a preference to visual, audio or kinesthetic learning, but they don’t retain the information any better, and they may in fact benefit from learning in a way that is less preferable.

(Aside: Future teachers may be interested in a paper published in Frontiers in PsychologyNeuromyths in education: Prevalence and predictors of misconceptions among teachers.”)

Technology in the Classroom

This seems to be treated as a recent trend, but in reality, new technology has always had a role in education. I remember my favorite part of the week in elementary school was going to the computer lab and playing educational games like Oregon Trail, Math Blaster, Number Munchers, Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?, SuperSolvers Outnumbered. The 90s, man. Wait, what were we talking about?

But yes, it seems that there is evidence that introducing technology into the classroom can have a positive impact on learning.

Online Education

Just a few days ago, University of the People, a tuition-free online school received accreditation to grant degrees to graduates. There is also several colleges and universities that have posted full course materials online for free, including MIT OpenCourseWare, Harvard, and several others.

There are also startups like Udacity that are specifically geared towards providing specific training to high demand jobs. The courses are paid for by companies that are looking to hire people with specific qualifications, but they are free to people willing to learn.

Not to mention Coursera, Academic Earth, Khan Academy and so many others. It makes me start to wonder why exactly I’m spending so much money for the privilege of being in an overcrowded lecture hall.

If nothing else, it raises the question of how much a university education is an intellectual pursuit or a quest for a degree.

So I hope this series was helpful in identifying some ways this topic can be discussed. However, it is not any kind of agenda of what we will necessarily talk about. Whoever shows up gets to decide how the meetings go.

The Education System: Part 2 – Politics

Our meeting topic this week is the education system. This is a topic that was brought up in several meetings last quarter, so we’ve dedicated an entire conversation to it. Education is a very broad topic, so there are a lot of different facets that can be covered and several directions this conversation can go. As such, I thought it might be a good idea to break up this topic into a few different posts.

The evolution debate is probably the most directly related to this club, but there are a lot of avenues for discussion when it comes to education, and several of them have become embroiled in political discussions about education reform.

Public Schools vs Charter Schools vs Other

I’ve often seen this debate referred to as “school choice,” but that seems to be the case for only one side. And I think it fundamentally comes down to whether or not one would prefer to have a strong public education system or more alternatives, such as charter schools, homeschooling or private schools. A charter school is typically free, and with no qualifications necessary for the student to enroll, but they are usually assigned via lottery since there are more students than available spaces. And a private school is one that charges students a tuition. They are often associated with religions, but they needn’t be. There are also magnet schools, which are specialized in certain subjects, but students typically have to test into them.

There are ardent arguments both for “school choice” and against.

Teachers Unions

Another fervent concern often debated is the amount of power unions have in the education process. At the heart of that is the issue of tenure for K-12 educators. This has been covered extensively in the documentary Waiting for “Superman” by director Davis Guggenheim, who also directed An Inconvenient Truth. I mention his other work because there is a rebuttal by a teacher-backed group called The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman.

In addition to those topics, there are also issues of whether or not standardized tests are useful tools, how to close the Achievement Gap, federal vs. local control of school curriculum, metrics on measuring student success, metrics on measuring teacher success, and identifying and analyzing the fundamental goals of education.

So once we’ve got all of that sorted out, we can move onto the Future of Education.

The Education System: Part 1 – Evolution

Our meeting topic this week is the education system. This is a topic that was brought up in several meetings last quarter, so we’ve dedicated an entire conversation to it. Education is a very broad topic, so there are a lot of different facets that can be covered and several directions this conversation can go. As such, I thought it might be a good idea to break up this topic into a few different posts.

First up, evolution.

There is a common theory that Charles Darwin hesitated publishing his book On the Origin of Species because he feared the religious backlash. This might not be the case. He was busy writing other books and he talked about his theory of evolution openly without causing any outrage. However, the publication did result in international debate and has fundamentally altered biology and science in general.

Legal History

You’ve probably learned about evolution through Natural Selection in a high school biology class at some point, but even today that type of education is occasionally challenged by religious fundamentalists. Here is a very brief overview of the legal cases regarding the teaching of evolution (and creationism) in the United States.

  • Scopes Trial (1925) – Tennessee made it illegal to teach evolution. Scopes was found guilty and fined $100.
  • Epperson v. Arkansas (1968) – Supreme Court case that ruled that bans on teaching evolution were unconstitutional.
  • Edwards v. Aguillard (1987) – Supreme Court case that prohibited the teaching of creationism in schools.
  • Kitzmiller v. Dover (2005) – A Pennsylvania District court case that ruled that Intelligent Design was not allowed to be taught in schools because of its religious connotations.

ArsTechnica has a great rundown of the history of the debate on creationism, from a few different perspectives. It gives a pretty thorough list of different factions and what they support (Young Earth Creationism, Day Age Creationism, Intelligent Design, etc.)

Current Standing

This is still a hotly debated topic, despite the overwhelming (and growing) evidence for evolution.

Just a few weeks ago, there was a debate between creationist Ken Ham, president of Answers in Genesis and the Creation Museum, and science educator and TV personality Bill Nye. You can watch the full debate on Youtube.

If you are not aware, Texas is often a battleground for this debate because of the approval process for textbooks. Because of the size of Texas school districts, publishers basically get the books approved in Texas, and just use the same book in the rest of the country. And for this reason, their school boards elections are a bigger deal than most. The State Board of Education typically has a large bloc of Creationist members that offer recommendations to publishers to undermine the teaching of evolution.

However, recently the major textbook publishers ignored these recommendations and the Board approved them anyway (because they need textbooks), so there is some hope that this front of the debate will be less important in the future.

About 33% of adults in the US still reject the idea of humans evolving over time, according to the Pew Research Center’s latest survey. This is actually consistent with their findings in 2009.

So that’s more or less where things stand today. I’m sortof taking for granted that anyone reading this will already accept the theory of evolution. But I find it interesting how contentious this issue is even with the amount of evidence in favor of evolution, just because religion is involved. The only other topic that might cause as much controversy when mixing with education is probably politics.

Which will be covered in Part 2.