Friday, January 31, 2014

Shadow of a Doubt - February 2014

The Monthly Calendar of the National Capital Area Skeptics
  • Feb 8 NCAS Lecture: Bad Medicine: How Alternative Medicine Has Infiltrated U.S. Medical Schools,  Steven Salzberg, Ph.D., Center for Computational Biology, Johns Hopkins University
  • Feb 12 Drinking Skeptically, now in MD and VA!
  • March NCAS Lecture: Evaluating Alternative Sources of Energy: Solar Energy from Space, Dr. Paul Jaffe of the US Naval Research Laboratory
  • NCAS Skeptical Crowdsourcing Project: Dowsing
  • NCAS Board Elections: Call for Candidates
  • Shadow Light
  • New Skeptic Line Number 
NCAS Public Lecture Series

Bad Medicine:
How Alternative Medicine Has Infiltrated U.S. Medical Schools

Steven Salzberg, PhD
Center for Computational Biology
Johns Hopkins University

Saturday, February 8, 1:30pm - 4:00pm
National Science Foundation, Room 110
4201 Wilson Boulevard
Arlington, VA [map] [directions]
(Ballston-Marymount University Metro stop)
Enter NSF from the corner of 9th N & N Stuart Streets.
FREE admission – Everyone welcome, members and non-members

Alternative medicine has become very popular over the past two decades, thanks to relentless promotion by the media, politicians, and a few highly visible celebrity doctors. Since the early 1990s, the NIH has spent over $2 billion studying complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), but has yet to show that any “alternative” treatment is effective. Part of this funding has been dedicated to establishing training programs in U.S. medical schools. Through these programs, doctors-to-be today learn about treatments based on acupuncture and homeopathy that are little more than magical thinking. In the middle of an intensive training program, most medical students do not have time and are not encouraged to question these practices. These same academic medical centers that host these training programs also offer CAM therapies to unsuspecting patients.

This talk will review some of the CAM topics now taught and practiced at major U.S. medical schools, and will discuss some of the conditions for which these CAM methods are used, including chronic pain, gastrointestinal disorders, and cancer. It will also cover the largely unscientific basis of these methods, and explain why proponents have succeeded in convincing both doctors and patients that CAM is “worth a try” for many disorders.

Steven Salzberg is an expert on genomics and DNA sequencing whose lab has developed many of the methods used to decode and analyze genomes over the past two decades. He participated in the Human Genome Project and dozens of other genome projects for many plant, animal, and bacterial species.

He co-founded the Influenza Genome Sequencing Project and helped to decode the bacteria used in the 2001 anthrax attacks. He is currently Professor of Medicine, Biostatistics, and Computer Science and Director of the Center for Computational Biology in the McKusick-Nathans Institute of Genetic Medicine at Johns Hopkins University. He holds undergraduate and Masters degrees from Yale University and a Ph.D. in computer science from Harvard University. He is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the International Society for Computational Biology. He writes a widely-read column on science and pseudoscience for Forbes magazine, at, which received the 2012 Balles Prize in Critical Thinking from the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.

Refreshments and socializing after the talk.

Get involved with our Skeptical Crowdsourcing Project
Some of our board members have observed workers for Maryland-based utility companies using dowsing* techniques to search for underground lines.  We have also had admissions of dowsing by employees of UtiliQuest (contractors who locate utilities and private lines on behalf of utilities and anyone else that wants to dig big holes).

Given that dowsing is undoubtedly a paranormal technique for finding things, it disturbs us that some Maryland utility workers and line-locating professionals will use dowsing if they are unable to find buried lines by normal methods.  Board member Bing Garthright has had communication with Washington Gas about this, and their official position is that they have never sanctioned dowsing in any way.  Bing has also talked at length with a Pepco official who remembers days past when, in the field, he witnessed much dowsing for buried utility lines.  Officially though, the industry is in a sort of denial.  That's why we are asking for your help.

We want to use the power of crowdsourcing to gather evidence to present to the utility companies, and possibly the media, that this is taking place in hopes of stopping the practice.   We are asking everyone to keep their eyes open.  If you see a utility worker using what appears to be dowsing techniques, whip out your iPhone or other video recording device, and capture it for us.  The favorite method for utility location seems to be a pair of metal wires, each bent into an L shape.  The dowser holds the shorter parts upright in each hand (often in a small plastic straw-sized cylinder) with each longer part pointing forward.  (If you are unsure what it looks like when someone is dowsing, enter “dowsing” into YouTube and you will find many examples.)

In general, it is legal to photograph or video record anyone in a public space. However, Maryland law makes it illegal to make an audio recording of a private conversation unless everyone involved gives their consent. Whether conversations among utility workers, or between you and utility workers, are considered private would depend on the specific facts of each situation. To be safe, we recommend that you turn off or otherwise disable the microphone on any recording device you use so that you are not capturing any conversation, just images. (We’ll share any tips we get for how to do that on commonly used devices. If there isn’t a technological fix, a piece of tape over the microphone might work.) Another approach would be to ask up front. “I’m interested in what you’re doing, do you mind if I record it?” If they say yes, try to get that on record as well, and be clear that you’re recording sound as well as picture. If they ask you not to record at all, do whatever makes you feel comfortable, though we would be interested in knowing about the incident if you decide not to record.

If you make a recording, contact us at and we will give you instructions for delivering the video to us.

This is an opportunity for NCAS to make a difference in our fight against pseudoscience and paranormal ideas.  We are grateful for your participation.

* Dowsing, as a refresher or for those who do not know, is a technique of using sticks or rods held in front of the dowser as a means for finding things hidden underground.   For example, a Y-shaped branch held out as the dowser walks along may suddenly seem to be pulled downward, and that is taken as a sign that the underground item has been found.  Most if not all scientists who have studied this phenomenon have invoked the ideomotor effect as the most likely explanation for what is happening.  Wikipedia defines the ideomotor effect as “…a psychological phenomenon wherein a subject makes motions unconsciously;….”   The dowser believes that some force is pulling on their branch, but they are likely doing it themselves unconsciously.  Though dowsers report a high success rate, whenever the technique is put to a double blind test, it fails every time.  If it ever didn’t fail, that dowser would be eligible for the James Randi Educational Foundation’s million dollar prize.

For more information, read "James Randi: Modern Dowsing," from the NCAS Skeptical Eye issue Volume 15, Number 1 at

March NCAS Lecture
Dr. Paul Jaffe of the US Naval Research Laboratory will speak on "Evaluating Alternative Sources of Energy: Solar Energy from Space."  Saturday, March 8 at 1:30 pm at National Science Foundation.

NCAS Board Elections: Call for Candidates
Are you an NCAS member who wants to take a leadership role in the skeptics movement?  The NCAS annual board of directors election is fast approaching.  Send an email to by February 28 for more information.

Shadow Light
Some members and contacts of NCAS receive a postal notification of this and every new monthly Shadow of a Doubt.  TheShadow Light postcard announces the monthly lecture and highlights of the electronic Shadow of a Doubt, which is available online at  NCAS thereby reduces Shadow production and postage costs.  To further reduce costs, members and contacts can opt out of postal notification altogether, while continuing to receive Shadow of a Doubt via e-mail.  To opt out, send us an e-mail at

Drinking Skeptically, now in MD and VA!

On Wednesday, February 12 at 7:00 p.m., please join fellow NCASers at either of our simultaneous DC-area Drinking Skeptically events:

                                    Skeptically Bottle Cap LogoNew Location: McGinty's Public House
Upstairs bar
911 Ellsworth Drive in Silver Spring, MD

The Front Page Arlington
Rear patio / National Science Foundation atrium
                            4201 Wilson Blvd (across from Ballston Common Mall) in Arlington VA
                            (703) 248-9990

Drinking Skeptically is an informal social event designed to promote fellowship and networking among skeptics, critical-thinkers, and like-minded individuals. There's no cover charge and all are welcome. Don't drink? Don't let that stop you from joining us! Some of the world's most famous skeptics are teetotalers, and we are happy to have you! Remember that drinking skeptically means drinking responsibly. If there's one thing science has taught us, it's the effects of alcohol on the human body.

New Skeptic Line Number
As of March 2013, NCAS has switched telephone numbers, from 301-587-3827 to 240-670-NCAS (6227).

Time to Renew?
Be sure to check your renewal date above your postal address on the Shadow Light postcard. Send any queries  Use the online membership form to renew.