Virginia nominates extreme anti-science candidate for governor

Last week, the Virginia Republican party nominated Ken Cuccinelli for governor, in an election to be held later this year.  Just three years ago, in his current job as Attorney General of Virginia, Cuccinelli launched one of the most outrageous attacks on an academic scientist that I've seen in many decades.  His actions would not be out of place in a totalitarian state such as the Soviet Union, or perhaps in the 1950's McCarthyism era, when many Americans were blacklisted, denied jobs, and even fired because of their political views.  But in a country where the freedom to speak is a fundamental right, Cuccinelli's actions are frightening.

Cuccinelli used the power of government to intimidate a scientist with whom he disagreed.  Not just one scientist, but 40 scientists and their colleagues, all working at the University of Virginia.  His message was clear: if you disagree with me, I will come after you.  Now Cuccinelli is running for governor, and in a state fairly evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, he has a good chance of winning.

Ken Cuccinelli is a climate change denialist, one of many U.S. politicians who think that the Earth is not warming, or if it is, that the warming is unrelated to human activities.  The science is completely against Cuccinelli on this, but if he were simply scientifically ignorant I wouldn't be writing about him.  After all, he's not the only politician who ignores science when he finds it inconvenient.

Cucinelli goes further - much, much further.  In 2010, he used the power of his office as Attorney general to launch a major legal attack on climate scientist Michael Mann, who was a professor at the University of Virginia from 199-2005.  Never mind that Mann had left UVA five years earlier; Cuccinelli wanted to make a public statement, and he chose his victim carefully.  (Mann is now at Penn State, where he holds the title Distinguished Professor of Meterology.)  

Michael Mann is the author of a famous paper that reconstructed temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere over the past 1,000 years. Man showed that we are experiencing an unprecented warming trend over the last century, shown in this figure from the IPCC report

Plot of temperature over the past 1,000
years, showing a dramatic rise in the past
century.  From the Intergovernmental
Panel on Climate Change report, 2007.
Did Cuccinelli try to find scientific evidence refuting Mann's data?  No.   He simply accused Mann, with no concrete evidence, of fraudulently manipulating data.  He then served formal legal orders on UVA, demanding all emails and other corresponding to or from Michael Mann and 39 other climate scientists, plus their research assistants and administrative staff, from 1999 through 2010.  They also demanded all "computer algorithms, programs, source code or the like" created by Mann and others. Cuccinelli's paper-thin legal justification for this attack was that Mann had violated a Virginia law called the Fraud Against Taxpayers Act, and that because Mann had request grant funding from the state, Cuccinelli could go after him and everyone associated with him.

UVA showed some backbone and refused to cave.  Hundreds of professors across the U.S. signed a petition organized by the Union of Concerned Scientists. The editors at Nature published an editorial saying that "The University of Virginia should fight a witch-hunt by the state's attorney general."

Two years later, after many court hearings and countless wasted taxpayer dollars, Virginia's Supreme Court threw out Cucinelli's charges and the case was over.

But just last week, Virginia Republicans nominated this modern-day McCarthyite to be their candidate for governor.  You can be sure that if he wins, Cuccinelli will use the heavy hand of government to intimidate anyone who disagrees with him.  His past actions show that he doesn't care about free speech or free inquiry, and he seems eager to go after anyone who might discover facts that he doesn't like.  I'd hate to be a professor at any of Virginia's universities if Cuccinelli takes over the reigns of power.

Poison for pain, the homeopathic way

At my local mega-grocery store last weekend, I happened to stroll down the aisle dedicated to homeopathic treatments.  I saw shelf after shelf of brightly colored packages, all claiming health benefits.  Most of these "medicines" were not cheap.

Amazing.  To an average shopper, all of these products look like real medicine.  The packaging is similar, the claims are similar, and it's all on display at a respectable grocery store.  The difference, though, is that none of these products do what they claim to do.  Thanks to a special exception for homeopathy created all the way back in 1938, none of the claims on these medicines need to be tested.  The homeopathy aisle is an organized, state-sanctioned scam.

The 1938 law was the brain child of a U.S. senator, Royal Copeland, who happened to be a homeopath.  Sen. Copeland inserted language into a major food and drug law that declared homeopathic preparations to be drugs.  It also allowed homeopaths themselves to maintain the official list of these drugs, called the Homeopathic Pharmacopeia.  Talk about the fox guarding the henhouse!  Thanks to aggressive lobbying by homeopaths, homeopathic ingredients are not subject to the normal review required of real drugs.  Most importantly, homeopathic drug makers do not have to prove their products are effective.

Homeopathy is based on the long-discredited beliefs of Samuel Hahnemann 200 years ago.  Hahnemann thought that "like cures like," as long as you dilute the substance sufficiently.  Thus caffeine will cure sleeplessness, poison ivy extract will cure an itch, and paralyzing plant toxins will cure pain.  None of this is true.

The other key principle of homeopathy is that the more you dilute something, the stronger its effect.  This is not only wrong, but it is exactly the opposite of what really happens.  Greater dosage levels, unsurprisingly, have stronger effects.  In Hahnemann's defense, science wasn't very far along when he came up with these notions.

Real medicine moved on long ago.  But homeopathy persists, because there is money to be made - lots of money.

Back to my grocery store.  Several shelves were filled with something called Topricin(R), which claims to relieve pain. Sounds like a medicine, right? Real drugs often use "cin" or "in" in their names because the word "medicine" itself ends with that sound.  Clever!  In front of me I saw Topricin for pain, Topricin foot cream, even Topricin for children. The Topricin packages and the company's website proclaim, in big letters, "Ideal Pain Relief", and in slightly less big letters: "Safe.  Effective. Free of Side Effects."  It also claims:
"Topricin's 11 homeopathic medicines are proven to be safe and effective for the elderly, pregnant, children, pregnant women and all skin types.  Experience Topricin's relief for damaged muscle, tendon, ligament, and nerve tissue."
This is simply not true.  It even seems to go beyond the bounds of what the (very weak) FDA regulations allow.  The website specifically claims that Topricin is effective for arthritis, back pain, bruises, bursitis, fibromyalgia, minor burns, tendinitis, and more.

Well, what is it?  Let's look at just two of the homeopathic ingredients in Topricin:

  • Belladonna 6X................. Treats muscles spasms, night leg cramps
  • Heloderma 8X................. Relief of burning pain in the hands and feet

Belladonna for pain?  Belladonna is one of the most toxic plants known to man.  Eating just a few small berries is lethal.  And the one study I could find showed that it has no clinical effect when used in a homeopathic preparation.  That's lucky for unwitting consumers: if it wasn't so diluted, Belladonna would make them very sick indeed.

Heloderma?  That's the venom from a gila monster.  Although rarely fatal, it causes severe pain, bleeding, nausea, and vomiting.  This is not something I would take for pain - and I certainly would never give it to children.

I know that Big Pharma is often guilty of deceptive marketing, and I've criticized Pharma many times.  But CAM ("complementary and alternative") pharma is every bit as bad.  Big CAM takes advantage of generous laws to make medical claims with impunity, often skirting as close as possible to what the law permits.  And the Big CAM companies profit handsomely in the process.  Everything on the Topricin package - the name, the packaging, the claims - is designed to make the consumer think that it is an effective pain treatment.  It's not.  It's a modern package of snake oil.