Headlines on trial: The diluted truth

We live in a society that embraces things for being “alternative.” And that’s fantastic. If that wasn’t the case, American Idol would be the only show on TV, and Radiohead’s new album (or the seven before it) would hardly be the talk of the town. In other words, the world would be a far less interesting place.

But the alternative route becomes a problem when an idea gains merit simply for being unorthodox — when going against the status quo is sufficient to garner credibility. The field of homeopathy has been riding this wave for more than 200 years.

In the popular understanding, homeopathy is readily lumped in with all things alternative and “natural.” Yet, rather than being a hazy branch of complementary medicine, it is actually a field with a unique history and a wealth of literature to boot. Its skeptics are fierce, and its proponents still fiercer. Welcome to Homeopathy 101.

When the 18th century drew to a close, the German physician Samuel Hahnemann came up with a rather outlandish notion: that the best way to treat a disease was to use a substance that induces its symptoms in a healthy individual. Considering that his peers were busy bloodletting and prescribing leech therapy, this idea may not have seemed too far from the norm.

The theory was inspired by Hahnemann’s reaction to cinchona bark, a common treatment for malaria at the time. Since ingesting cinchona made him feel “languid and drowsy,” symptoms which he felt were similar to those of malaria, Hahnemann concluded that this property must be essential to its medicinal effects. Thus, the field of homeopathy was born.

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But there was a problem here. People were probably not too fond of taking medicines which had been specifically chosen to induce the symptoms they were already suffering from. To get around this inconvenient hurdle, Hahnemann added a further innovation to his recipe. He decided that the more you dilute a substance, the more you can “potentize” its healing abilities.

Any old dilution wouldn’t do the trick. In order to be effective, this procedure had to be carried out by administering ten hard strikes against an elastic object (a process referred to as “succussion”). Only then would you be able to activate the “spirit-like essence” of the substance being diluted.

What’s more, it’s remarkable how much diluting it takes to release the genie in the homeopathic bottle. We’re not talking about a splash of water in our whisky here. Homeopaths measure dilution on a centesimal (or C) scale, which involves diluting a substance by one part in 100 at every step. Given that your typical homeopathic treatment comes at a dilution of 30C, that equates to a dilution factor of 10 to the power of 60.

To put this in perspective, skeptics have noted that a dilution of 12C is the equivalent of adding a pinch of salt to the Atlantic Ocean. Quite some splash of water.

It’s convenient, then, that central to the current homeopathic philosophy is the idea that the elaborate process of succussion leaves an imprint of the diluted substance on water, or a “water memory.” The fact that this notion is widely refuted by physicists, chemists, and common sense alike is apparently of little concern to the homeopath.

Today, the concepts of “like curing like,” potentization, and extreme dilution persist largely unchanged within the homeopathy industry. In fact, they form the basis of a huge number of “remedies” in the homeopathic arsenal.

Whether or not you find these ideas credible is a matter of individual judgment. Personally, I like to have at least 12 molecules of active ingredient in any medicine I take. But that’s me. The seeming impossibility of the method should not be the sole reason for dismissing homeopathy. After all, there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy.

What really matters is the clinical evidence for homeopathy. Specifically, how does it measure up under the inspection of a controlled clinical trial?

When it comes to this pivotal question, there is a huge amount of evidence out there — enough to give ammunition to both sides of the debate. Even for the hardened observer, the prospect of trying to unravel the key message from this tangled web of data can be rather daunting.

To help resolve this issue, it’s time to introduce another key concept of clinical science: the meta-analysis. Don’t be put off by the scary terminology. A meta-analysis essentially involves combining all the data from multiple, small trials into a single coherent analysis, then seeing which way the weight of evidence leans. It’s a pretty logical concept, and it might not be too unfamiliar. Rotten Tomatoes has been doing exactly the same thing for film reviews for years.

Crucially, a meta-analysis can reveal a significant clinical effect for a particular intervention when each individual trial had failed to recognize it. Alternatively, this method can dispel the apparent virtues of a treatment when some of the smaller trials might suggest otherwise. This makes it the perfect tool for examining the clinical evidence on homeopathy.

So what do the meta-analyses (and there have been several) have to say on the matter?

Perhaps the most comprehensive of these studies, examining 110 independent trials on homeopathy, was published by Professor Matthias Egger in The Lancet in 2005. In each trial, the therapeutic effect of a homeopathic treatment was measured (basically, did the intervention do anything?). But perhaps more importantly, the quality of each study was scrutinized. For instance, how big was it? Was it randomized? And was it blinded? All important stuff, which can drastically influence the outcome of a clinical investigation.

Here’s what it boiled down to (cue drum roll): while small, low quality trials often reveal a therapeutic effect for homeopathy, the better the study, the smaller this effect tends to be. And if you look exclusively at the largest, most scrupulous trials, homeopathy performs no better than placebo.

When it comes to issues of public health, we deserve the undiluted truth. If a remedy does not contain a single molecule of active ingredient, and cannot weather the scrutiny of a controlled clinical trial, it probably shouldn’t form the basis of a multi-billion dollar global industry.

Conventional medicine is far from flawless. It is built, however, on a system of constant re-evaluation, in which obsolete and ineffective practices are cast aside. Somehow, homeopathy has escaped the scrapheap.

Read Headlines on trial: The power of evidence

Free wired

Last week’s alleged penetration of sensitive federal government networks by China-based hackers demonstrates the need for greater communications security in Canada. While the hackers did not steal any crucial secrets, they did gain access to the internal networks of three government departments responsible for the federal budget. It is unclear whether the hackers’ activities were state-sponsored, but if they were, this breach could amount to a 21st-century version of economic espionage. If the hackers had stolen budget secrets, they could have passed them on to investors who would then be able to make bets on the effect that the budget would have on Canadian stocks.

This breach highlights the paramount importance of keeping government communications safe. For the past decade, Canadian national security policy has focused nearly exclusively on counterterrorism. While the capacity of state-sponsored and freelance hackers to infiltrate government networks has significantly increased, it is unclear whether Canada’s capacity to defend itself from these kinds of attacks has increased at anywhere near the same rate. A decade spent focusing on terrorism has come largely at the expense of understanding and responding to other kinds of threats. This breach proves that it is now time to correct this security gap.

According to several reports, human error seems to have been responsible for this breach. Senior officials within the three departments were contacted with offers tailored to their status as “executives” within the government. Using the information provided by the officials who responded to these offers, the hackers accessed their computers remotely and sent requests to the department’s support staff for network passwords posing as the executives. With these passwords, they attempted to gain access to secret and top secret budget documents. However, communications security staff detected these infiltrations before the hackers could steal any sensitive information and prevented them from doing so.
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Though the successful defence mounted by Canadian security officials should be lauded, it is important to ensure that public servants take steps to prevent these kinds of breaches. Government security staff should require greater use of encryption, randomization, and other techniques that would make it harder for hackers to use any information they obtained. Moreover, they should expand the use of secure communications technology and alter existing technology, especially BlackBerries, to prevent the use of functions, such as instant messaging, which cannot be effectively secured. Such a program would be costly, but is crucial for keeping key government departments connected, but secure.

The Communications Security Establishment, whose staff successfully repelled the attack by Chinese hackers, would coordinate an expanded communications security program. CSEC is responsible for securing government communications, and also gathering intelligence on external threats to Canada’s national security, which it does by intercepting communications in cooperation with sister agencies in Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States. Since the September 11 attacks, its staff has expanded to meet growing intelligence gathering responsibilities. CSEC should be further expanded to meet the federal government’s need for greater communications security coordination.

CSEC is unique among Canadian intelligence and security agencies as it is directly supported by the Canadian military and under the authority of the Minister of National Defence, rather than the Minister of Public Safety. There is a special unit within the Canadian Forces, the Canadian Forces Information Operations Group, which is responsible for providing technical assistance to CSEC. It too should be expanded to provide additional support to CSEC especially in the area of communications security. Eventually, the Canadian government could also consider following the American model by creating a small, flexible “cyber command” to unify the military’s cybersecurity activities.

Within the context of current discussions between the American and Canadian governments on the possibility of more comprehensive security cooperation, our government should also consider whether Canada should cooperate more formally with the United States on cybersecurity. Eventually, this could take the form of adding a cybersecurity dimension to an expanded NORAD partnership, which would see the American and Canadian militaries ensure North American security in the air, at sea, and online. This “cyber-NORAD” would help Canada keep itself safe from this kind of cyberattack and build on decades of close intelligence and military cooperation between Canada and the United States.

While the infiltration attempt revealed last week was unsuccessful, foreign hackers will undoubtedly continue to try to penetrate Canada’s secure government networks. They will surely develop more sophisticated ploys and techniques aimed at stealing key government information. Canada must prepare to meet this threat head on by strengthening security, by improving vigilance among public servants, beefing up its civilian and military communications security staff, and better coordinating online defence activities with the United States. Perhaps these changes will take a successful attack on Canada, but hopefully the government will take note now and take the crucial steps to prevent future breaches.

A good sport: Summer around the corner

Toronto’s Major League Baseball team is coming off a good 2010, but there are several looming questions that will affect their success in 2011 and beyond.

Spring training has actually been going on for over two weeks and the first regular season game is less than a month away.

The Toronto Blue Jays are starting a new era, a post-Cito Gaston era. Boston Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell is leading the Jays now, and he promises to bring a new approach to a team whose fans were often both baffled and frustrated by Gaston’s fidelity to widely rejected old-school assumptions about how to run a baseball team.

The club finds itself coming off a remarkable 2010 season. It exceeded all expectations to post 85 wins (some thought they would win as few as 65) and important pieces of their future took huge leaps forward. It’s possible that the Jays could take a step back in 2011 in terms of wins and losses, yet still make progress towards the medium-term goal of a World Series championship.

Here are three big questions that will shape not only the Jays’ 2011, but the next five years or so.

1) Can the pitching keep it up? The Jays’ young pitchers made huge strides forward last year. Brandon Morrow, Ricky Romero, and Brett Cecil all emerged as potentially elite starters. The Jays also have a plethora of less-talented but still serviceable starters, including Jesse Litsch and Marc Rzepczynski. Most importantly, two studs in the minors — Kyle Drabek and Zach Stewart — could both see Major League time this year (in fact, Drabek is highly likely to be one of the team’s starters to begin the year). But the Jays’ pitching has been almost too good to be true. Young pitchers often suffer injuries and on-field setbacks. Can the Jays’ core keep it together? All signs point to yes, but you can never have too much pitching.
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2) Can Adam Lind transition to first base? Lind has always been an awkward-looking defensive player and extremely young to be a full-time Designated Hitter (a role usually reserved for older, beat-up veterans). For lack of an impact first baseman in the system, the Jays have opted to try him out full-time at first base and see what he can do. He has shown the potential to be an elite hitter (despite a dreadful 2010) but his viability as a useful asset to the Jays mostly hinges on whether or not he can play passable defence.

3) How will the club fare post-Vernon Wells? The face of the Jays franchise was traded to Anaheim to shed a tortuous contract. Finding a team to trade for Wells was nothing short of a miracle and a great move for the organization. But the hot and cold All-Star has been a fixture of the Jays clubhouse for nearly a decade, and a new generation of leaders will need to replace him. If the very young Travis Snider can have the breakout offensive year most believe he is capable of, that will go a long way to replace the solid offensive season Wells had last year that he won’t be contributing to the Jays anymore.

New HIV vaccine?

Engineers from MIT have designed a new type of vaccine that could potentially be used to prevent HIV and malaria safely and much more effectively. These new particles are described in the February 20 issue of Nature Materials.

The particles are formed out of concentric spheres made of fat. They carry synthetic versions of virus protein particles in their core. These nano-sized lipid-based vaccines can elicit the same strong immune response as a live virus vaccine, but are much safer due to their synthetic virus particles.

Vaccines work by priming your immune system. By exposing the immune system to an infectious agent, it can more easily recognize and destroy the same pathogen during a later encounter. Vaccines are designed to incite the production of either T cells (which destroy infected cells) or B cells (which secrete antibodies to target pathogens).

However, a vaccine for HIV — much like those for polio and smallpox — requires the activation of a subset of T cells called the killer T cells, using a weakened or disabled virus. Creating an HIV vaccine using a live virus is difficult because it is hard to render it harmless.

Some vaccines, like the diphtheria vaccine, can use recombinant or synthetic proteins, or molecules normally made by the virus. However, this route is inadequate for HIV or Hepatitis B vaccines, because the synthetic particles don’t elicit the same strong T cell response.
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Recently, scientists have tried working with the idea of encasing these synthetic vaccines in liposomes, or fatty droplets, which resemble normal viruses and can help stimulate killer T cells. Normally, however, these fatty droplets are unstable in bodily fluids.

Postdoctoral fellow James Moon, associate professor Darrell Irvine, and their colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have developed a more stable way to assemble liposome nanoparticles. The virus antigen particles are packaged in multiple concentric liposomal spheres. The headgroups of adjacent lipid bilayers are then crosslinked, a technique to make them more stable and less likely to break down upon injection. The lipid bilayer structure allows these nanoparticles to be absorbed by your cells. Once inside, the harmless synthetic virus particles are released in the presence of enzymes that break down fat, called endolysosomal lipases. This provokes the killer T-cell response.

Moon and his colleagues used these nanoparticles to test the T-cell response in mice, to a protein called ovalbumin. They found that, after three immunizations using low doses of the vaccine, up to 30 per cent of all killer T cells in the mice were specific to the vaccine protein.

These results are comparable to vaccines that use live viruses, but they are much safer to prepare and use. The vaccines also elicited a strong antibody response. Researchers have yet to discover whether these vaccines can elicit the same strong response in humans.

So far, these newly constructed nano-sized lipid based vaccines are making for a potential safe delivery system for vaccines against hard-to-handle viruses like HIV or hepatitis B. Irvine and his colleagues have since moved on to try and develop these vaccines to immunize people against malaria, HIV, and cancer.

Science in brief

Emotion may regulate ethical behaviour

A study at UTSC has found that people behave more ethically than predicted when they are faced with a moral dilemma, thanks to their emotions.

The experiment consisted of participants divided into three groups. Experimenters had one group complete a math test. Another group received the same test, but also had the opportunity to cheat. The last group was simply asked if they thought they would cheat on the questions if given the chance.

The results showed that members of the third group claimed they would cheat more often than test-takers with the actual option to cheat. The study attributed this ethical behaviour to heightened emotions, indicated by factors such as sweaty palms and increased heart rate. Researchers observed these physical signs in the test-taking group with the moral decision to make.

While emotions led to more ethical actions in the test-taking situation, the lead author comments that emotions can also produce the opposite result — less moral behavior — depending on the situation.— Kimberly Shek

Source: Association for Psychological Science

The perils of a fake smile

A new study by Michigan State University business professor Brent Scott and graduate student Christopher Barnes, has uncovered the dangers of a fake smile. They found that employees who had to fake smile throughout their work day — which is often the case for customer service employees — also had worsened moods. This caused them to withdraw from their work, resulting in reduced productivity and emotional exhaustion.

The results were reversed for those who smiled authentically. Those who thought positive thoughts about the situation or who recalled pleasant memories were able to improve their mood and withdraw less.

The study is published in the February 2011 issue of the Academy of Management Journal, and examined a group of bus drivers for two weeks. The researchers examined the effects of “surface acting” — such as fake smiling — versus “deep acting,” which cultivated positive emotions to induce a more authentic smile.

The results and the effects of deep acting were stronger in women, although they did not explain reasons why this might be the case. They did, however, find a caveat: while deep acting improved workers moods, it was only short-term, and led to feelings of being inauthentic in the long term.— Kim Tran

Source: Michigan State University

Face to face with Yellow Face

“As an Asian-Canadian I am faced with the personal question of my place in the world,” says Andrew Cheng, production dramaturg of David Henry Hwang’s Yellow Face, in the play’s program notes. “While I do identify as Asian, I have always been, simply put: Canadian.” In Yellow Face, Hwang confronts the issue of racial identity, asking whether it is chosen by the individual or chosen for them at birth. Yellow Face is a part-autobiographical, part-fictional illustration of the racial tensions Hwang, an Asian American, has faced during his career as a playwright, and an examination of the place of Asian identity in American culture.

The play illustrates Hwang’s career through email messages, newspaper reviews, and voicemails that he received in response to his plays. Cast members Charmaine Lau, Daniel Krolik, David Fujino, and Emily Opal Smith — each assuming multiple identities of journalists and associates of Hwang, recite abrupt monologues that depict messages he recieved, making smooth transitions as they move from one identity to another. Ben Wong, who plays Hwang; Carl, who plays the announcer and a troublemaking journalist; and Kristoffer Pedlar, who plays Marcus; walk off the stage at each scene’s end.

Ben Wong effectively portrays two different roles — the Hwang engaged in the events of the play and Hwang the commentator. As the former, Wong convincingly recites Hwang’s passionate bursts of anger, his facial expressions illustrating the tensions the character faces throughout the play. Portraying the latter, Wong shows a clear disengagement from his character and speaks to the audience casually, assuming the role of a man commenting on the events of the past.
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Hwang’s relationship with Marcus serves as a central plot. Hwang hires Marcus to play the starring role in his production, “Face Value,” thinking that Marcus is Asian. Hwang discovers that Marcus is really Caucasian and, worried that the public will learn Marcus’ true racial identity, Hwang fires Marcus from the cast. Still assuming an Asian identity, Marcus continues his career, achieving fame on Broadway. Hwang and Marcus’ tense relationship worsens. Hwang struggles to show the press Marcus’ true racial identity.

Another aspect of the plot is the Asian espionage scandal of the late 1990s, which Hwang narrates using newspaper article fragments and, in one scene, an actual script from an FBI interrogation of an Asian American accused of espionage. Hwang is brought into the scandal when his father, the manager of a bank branch, is accused of espionage. Commenting on the reputation of Asian identity in American culture, this act shows Hwang’s struggle to fight the government’s allegations against his father.

Yellow Face effectively portrays the tensions existing between American culture and Asian racial identity that Hwang has faced. Using himself as the subject, Hwang presents a believable story of his moral and professional struggle with his Asian identity and with the racial identity of Marcus. “Do we identify as mixed race or highlight our heritage as we feel it is at our core?” Andrew Cheng asks. “Will there be a future where race doesn’t matter? Is the resistance to assimilation self-imposed segregation?” Yellow Face does not answer these questions but rather looks to a future in which answers may be found.

Read our interview with David Henry Hwang here

Extraordinary states of matter at the core of star

Last week, NASA scientist Dany Page, working in tandem with astronomers from all over North America discovered the first evidence for the existence of superfluids in nature. The Chandra X-ray observatory observed the remnants of a 330-year old supernova from the star Cassiopeia A, or Cas A, with important results for science.

Superfluids are an alternate state of matter with extraordinary properties: zero viscosity, zero entropy, and perfect thermal conductivity. This means that, while known superfluids may look like a liquid, they spread out on any surface they touch without restriction — including up and over walls. They do this by overcoming the forces of friction and gravity. No matter how far a superfluid spreads out, the temperature within the entire fluid remains perfectly even across the substance without energy loss.

The property of theoretical zero viscosity leading to superfluids was first hypothesised by John Allen, Don Misener, and Pyotr Kapitsa in 1937. However, only the direct observations of this state of matter earned a Nobel Prize for L.D. Landau in 1962. On Earth, superfluids never occur in nature and can only be produced artificially under extreme conditions, with laboratory temperatures reaching near absolute zero, or -273.15 degrees celcius.

Canadian astronomer Craig Heinke at the University of Alberta, and British astronomer Wynn Ho, found that the neutron star resulting from the supernova Cas A is experiencing a rapid decline in temperature. A neutron star, often the final outcome of such supernovas, is a ball of hyper-dense matter. It is formed from neutrons being compacted as closely as possible, and is so dense that just a teaspoon of it would weigh more than a billion tons. In this extremely dense, heavy star, scientists could not account for the rapid decline in temperature using a normal explanation.
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Instead, on February 25, Page and colleagues proposed in Physical Review Letters that this decline is best understood by the formation of a neutron superfluid at the very core of the star. This is possible because the intense pressure and gravity at the heart of the super-dense neutron star raises the critical point of this state of matter from absolute zero to nearly one billion degrees.

Cas A offers a rare chance for scientists to observe not only the natural occurrence of superfluids, but a new type of superfluid. Since Cas A is so young, it may help identify the formation of these unique stellar objects and some of their properties. Specifically, astronomers suspect that there is a relationship between this superfluid core, “glitches” (sudden increases in rotation speed), pulsation, energy outbursts, and neutron stars’ magnetic fields.

The ten-dollar wine snob: Santa Carolina Shiraz

Santa Carolina Shiraz

$7.95 at the LCBO

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I don’t generally like shiraz, but this week I think I’ll be drinking a lot of it. Along with being the sixth most populous city in Iran and the capital of Fars Province, shiraz is a dark-skinned grape with an ancestry in the Rhone region of Southeastern France. The grape first came to prominence in France when it was blended to create bordeaux and made it to Australia in the 1830s, where it is also very popular.

A shiraz is a very powerful, full-bodied wine. Similar to pinot grigio, reviewed last week, the flavours can vary based on technique, climate, and soil. There will normally be hints of a berry or floral aroma, but what you’re more than guaranteed to notice is the taste of black pepper. This is the kind of wine that makes you cough in the most uncouth of manners at the winery; my first memory of it is when it shocked me into repenting when I tried it in church.

People will also describe it as having an earthy or leathery taste. What does this mean? If you cannot run out to the store this moment, take an old belt and bury it the garden patch, then quickly dig it up (you wouldn’t want it to be overdone), and lick it. Lick it good. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you an earthy and leathery taste. If you ever order the house red at Pauper’s Pub you’ll realize that your old belt might just be an upgrade.

The Santa Carolina Shiraz is among the better shiraz wines you’ll find. As we learned previously, South America is a fantastic source of reasonably priced wines. This specimen has light berry hints and — you guessed it — some earthy tones. Best enjoyed during an indecisive UTSU election as you’re waiting for the CRO.