Saturday, February 25, 2006

A Field Guide to Quackery and Pseudoscience – Part Five

Quantum Noise

From time to time, certain words and phrases are lifted out of their native environment and placed into everyday language. When this happens, the original meaning of the word or phrase is often altered or lost entirely. Such is the case with the word “quantum”.

The idea that energy might come in small, indivisible “quanta” was the result of the photoelectric effect, the solution of which was what led to Albert Einstein’s Nobel Prize in Physics. Later, it was discovered that not only energy, but space and even time are “granular”.

When quantum mechanics reached the public consciousness (several decades after it was developed), one of the first colloquial terms introduced was “quantum leap”, meaning a large, revolutionary (and presumably progressive) change. This is ironic, since a “quantum” (plural “quanta”) is the smallest possible change in energy, space or time.

It was once said that only a handful of people truly understood quantum mechanics, and looking on the Internet, you might be forgiven for believing that it is true today. This is not to say that quantum mechanics is not discussed on the Internet – quite the contrary! A search for the word “quantum” will reveal thousands of websites offering “quantum” products and services, along with large number of sites offering to explain how quantum mechanics can explain a dizzying amount of pseudoscientific (or quack) nonsense.

Easily the largest numbers of these quantum nonsense sites are those about “quantum healing”. Starting with the undisputed king of quantum nonsense, Deepak Chopra, and moving down to websites that offer to cure you – using the mysterious quanta – over the telephone (you don’t even need to stay on the line!).

Let’s look at some of the ways these people think they are using the “mysterious quantum”:

From Deepak Chopra:

"Quantum healing is healing the bodymind from a quantum level. That means from a level which is not manifest at a sensory level. Our bodies ultimately are fields of information, intelligence and energy. Quantum healing involves a shift in the fields of energy information, so as to bring about a correction in an idea that has gone wrong. So quantum healing involves healing one mode of consciousness, mind, to bring about changes in another mode of consciousness, body."

From a Quantum Healing Center:

"Further, quantum physics discovered in the last decades that every particle of matter is associated with interaction and resonance quanta (parcels of energy) at a ratio of about 1 nucleon to 1 billion quanta. The quanta exhibit specific patterns and are susceptible to resonance. These subtle energetic configurations (bodies) can be disturbed causing unwellness and pain. Therefore, the body is a quantum mechanical device and Quantum Healing is healing the bodymind from a quantum level. That means from a level, which is not manifest at a sensory level. Quantum Depth Healing involves a shift in the areas of energy information, so as to bring about a reconstruction in an idea that has gone wrong. "

A testimonial from a nurse anesthetist who believes that she is a “quantum healer”:

"This is one of the latest of my adventures. I was giving a fellow anesthetist a break recently, and the surgeon was 2 hours into trying to fix a tibial fracture that would not reduce. The OR nurses know first hand of my abilities, and smiled when I went into my 'voodoo' mode. Doing a vector anaysis, I noted that the femur was also affected by the tibial fracture. By utilizing Quantum-Touch , the tibia realigned itself under fluoroscopic visualization to the amazement of the surgeon and the radiology technician. The returning anesthetist just smiled and nicknamed me 'Dr. Bombay' after the character in Bewitched."

From a person who believes that quantum mechanics means we can create our own reality:

"You probably know of the increases in awareness and consciousness on the planet. Just think what it could mean for your life to find out about the reality of the unseen world, and how it responds to the holographic images you create with your mind!

Choose to take part in rejuvenating the entire planet while also Creating What You Want!"

What all these people have in common is that they really don’t understand quantum mechanics at all.

Quantum “consciousness”:

There are two underlying features that most of the “quantum misunderstandings” have in common. The first is the idea that “consciousness” can influence reality directly – as opposed to acting through the actions of the organism with the “consciousness”. Many of these “quantum promoters” assert that we can change our reality – our health, our wealth, and even our future – simply by thinking the right thoughts.

Now, this is what practitioners of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) have argued for decades, but the “quantum promoters” are not talking about changing your life though a better attitude – they’re claiming that your thoughts can actually influence the elementary particles that make up our world.

Where did they get this idea? Well, when quantum mechanics was still new, many of the leading lights in physics were bothered by its apparent paradoxes. In physics, paradoxes are almost always a sign that the theory is wrong. Einstein and Schrodinger believed that these paradoxes indicated that quantum mechanics was an incomplete theory of reality.

One of the apparent paradoxes of the quantum world is the behavior of photons and electrons. Depending on how you look at them, they are “either” waves or particles. To many physicists in the early days of quantum mechanics, the way that photons and electrons showed wave properties when the experimenter was looking for waves and showed particle properties when they were looking for particles suggested that it was human consciousness –a “conscious observer” – that caused the “collapse of the wave function” into either a particle or a wave. Prior to this intervention of human consciousness, the photon or electron was supposedly in a “superposition of states” – neither particle nor wave - waiting for a conscious observer to “cause” it to choose one or the other.

Schroedinger went so far as to propose a “thought experiment” in which a cat was placed in a box containing a device that would release a poison if a radioactive atom decayed (this would never get by modern animal experimentation rules). Since radioactive decay is a quantum event (and random – which bothered Einstein and Schrodinger), it could be assumed that it would also be influenced by a conscious observer. As a result, the fate of the cat would not be determined until someone opened the box. Until then, the cat would be in a superposition of states – neither alive nor dead – a situation that is (as Schrodinger clearly intended it to be) completely ridiculous.

The modern resolution of this “paradox” of quantum “particles” (e.g. photons, electrons, etc.) is simple. The “paradox” results because of the false dilemma – particle or wave – rather than any limitation or “magical” nature of quantum theory. Photons and electrons (and all other elementary particles) are neither particles nor waves – they are something that we have no analogy for in our macroscopic world.

As a result, there is nothing about our consciousness that influences quantum particles or – sad to say – the world outside of ourselves. If we want to use our consciousness to influence the world, we will have to work through our muscles – by talking, typing or doing.


Many of the “quantum promoters” use “entanglement” as an explanation of how everything in the universe is “connected”. This supposedly explains how we can influence objects and “draw energy” from them. This is about as far from real quantum entanglement as it could possibly be.

Quantum entanglement occurs when two particles (usually photons) are emitted from an atom in a singlet (or neutral) state. Because of the conservation laws, the photons (for instance) will have the same polarization [the identical polarizations cancel out because the photons are heading in opposite directions – for a much better explanation, see Victor Stenger’s “The Unconscious Quantum”]. No matter how far they travel, these two photons will have the same polarization – they are considered to be “entangled”.

What entangled photons have to do with “quantum healing” or “remote viewing” or anything of that sort is unclear – and probably imaginary. The basic problem is that the “interesting” quantum effects average out as you get more and more particles together. This is referred to as “decoherence” and explains why we don’t see footballs (“soccer” balls, to those raised in the US) changing into waves during the World Cup.


Of all things, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle is occasionally used to explain New Age Nonsense. For those who don’t know it, the Uncertainty Principle states that it is not possible to know a particle’s position and momentum with complete accuracy. This is usually expressed as:

DpDx > h

where: Dp = uncertainty in momentum, Dx = uncertainty in position and h = Planck’s constant.

There is some uncertainty (pun intended) about what this means. At one level, it is expressing a physical limitation of our ability to measure very small objects. While I can know with very good precision the exact position and momentum of a football during a game, that is because the particles I am using to “measure” its position and momentum (photons) are infinitesimal compared to the object I am measuring.

At the level of measuring photons or electrons, the particles used in measuring are nearly as massive (or equally as massive) as the object being measured. It is if I had to track the location and momentum of the football by bombarding the field with footballs and watching to see footballs taking an odd bounce. Clearly, once one of the “measuring” footballs collided with the “target” football, the “target’s” position and momentum would be changed.

However, there is data suggesting that another interpretation of the Uncertainty Principle is also valid – that position and momentum are complementary properties and that knowing one of them more precisely means that the other property can only be known with less precision. Alternately, momentum and position may be properties that are linked in such a way that constraining (measuring) one forces the other to become less precise (less “real”).

As with all of the other quantum effects, uncertainty becomes less of an issue in the macroscopic world we human inhabit. In our world, it is possible to know both position and momentum with a high degree of precision, given the proper tools.


Quantum mechanics is a fascinating subject that is filled with apparent mysteries and paradoxes – effects that are unfamiliar or even counter-intuitive for beings that inhabit our scale level. Despite its bizarre aspects, quantum mechanics is not magic. And magic is exactly what the “quantum promoters” are trying to claim.

Mind reading, distant viewing, therapeutic touch, etc. all make use of jargon that includes liberal use of the word “quantum”. This does not mean that they are quantum effects any more than repeatedly saying a cat is a dog will turn it into a Labrador Retriever. What they are describing is not quantum physics but magic, and magic does not exist outside of storybooks.


Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Opinions are like......; everybody's got one.

Just a quick mid-week post today.

I've been noticing lately how many people in the blogosphere are under the (mistaken) impression that their ability to form an opinion means that their opinion is somehow valid. This is generally true on the Internet, but especially true in one particular corner of the Web...


From a lawyer with no training, experience or education in biology, medicine or chemistry:

"Autism is mercury poisoning!"

From a venture capitalist with no training, experience or education in biology, medicine or chemistry:

"Autism is mercury poisoning!"

From a marketing consultant with no training, experience or education in biology, medicine or chemistry:

"Autism is mercury poisoning!"

What would these same people say if I, a humble molecular biologist with no training in law, investing or marketing presumed to tell them that they were dead wrong about something in their fields? I imagine that laughter would be the nicest thing I could expect - and it would be well deserved! After all, who am I to think that my uneducated opinion about those matters amounts to anything?

Yet, strangely enough, they seem to think that - despite their lack of training, experience or education in biology, medicine or chemistry, they have mastered all of the subtleties of the issues surrounding autism.

Yes, life is stranger than fiction!

Let's dispose of the "elephant in the living room" at the outset. These people (and many more just like them) have no idea what they're talking about - they are just repeating what they've been told. For the most part, they have no more comprehension of the biology of autism than my goldfish does.

These same people, who wax eloquent on the "devastation" that mercury has wreaked on the immune system, couldn't describe the functions of B-cells and T-cells to save their lives. Likewise, they dismiss out of hand any suggestion of a genetic contribution to autism without the slightest understanding of genetics. In fact, I would be willing to bet that most of them don't even know how many chromosomes they have (answer: 46).

What they do have is someone that they "trust", who has told them what they want to hear, namely:

[1] "I know exactly what caused your child's autism." (as opposed to what an honest doctor would tell them, namely that nobody really knows what causes autism yet)

[2] "Your child's autism is not your fault." (probably true, but again, without knowing the cause, who can say?)

[3] "Someone else caused your child's autism." (a nice way to focus anger externally and keep from dealing with the feelings of loss and grief - not true, however, since nobody really knows what causes autism)

[4] "I know how to make your child better." (I suspect that most actually believe this - it still doesn't make them right, and they most likely are not)

These answers contrast sharply with the truths (added parenthetically above), which are neither comforting nor satisfying, but have the advantage of being true. However, given the choice between a pleasant fairy tale and an unpleasant truth, most people opt for the fairy tale. It's just human nature.

At some point, most (but certainly not all) of the people who take the fairy tale option will come to realize the truth - that they have bought in to a version of the world that is not "in synch" with reality. When that happens, most will simply drop out of the "support groups", rallies, e-mail lists and blogs and go back to quietly living their lives in the real world.

Fortunately, more and more of these people are coming forward to tell their stories to the world, to talk about how they bought the fairy tale and were led down the garden path. Most are not angry with those who misled them or out to "put things right". The ones I have corresponded with simply want to put their stories in front of parents - to let them make up their own minds.

Contrast this with the strident and angry tones of the autism-mercury Crusaders, who do everything in their power to silence all dissent and squash all skepticism.

So, what can you learn from all this?

The calm, quiet parents have been there...and back.
The angry ones are still living in the fairy tale.


Monday, February 20, 2006

Why Anecdotes aren't Data

A reader pointed me to a wonderful example of how people's impression of reality does not always match with reality itself - and a perfect example of why scientists spend so much time and effort trying to make sure that they aren't fooling themselves.

This reader pointed me towards the "Parent Ratings of Behavioral Effects of Biomedical Treatments" on the Autism Research Institute's website. For those of you who are not familiar with the work of the Autism Research Institute (ARI), it is - at least at present - primarily involved in finding and promoting "biomedical" treatments for autism, which apparently means the same as "alternative medicine". I say this because they reject - quite vigorously - several "biomedical" treatments that are well inside the mainstream of medical therapy.

Anyway, my helpful reader was trying to convince me that chelation has a significant positive effect on autism, as evidenced by the reports of parents who filled out the questionnaire (available on-line). Leaving until later any discussion about the validity of opinion polls used to judge medical therapies, let's look at what they have found.

On the list, chelation is placed under the heading of "Biomedical/Non-Drug/Supplements" and is included in the group "Detox. (Chelation)". Now, this is a very interesting place to put chelation - and shows the bias of the website quite nicely - since all chelating agents recommended by DAN! doctors (the practitioners recommended by ARI) are, sad to say, drugs (e.g. EDTA, DMSA, DMPS).

But, leaving that aside, the ARI opinion poll shows the following for "Detox. (Chelation)":

Got Worse - 2%
No Effect - 22%
Got Better - 76%

At this point, the pollster adds an odd mathematical twist - they divide the percent who "Got Better" by the percent who "Got Worse" and comes up with a 35:1 "Better:Worse" ratio. This is an interesting trick, since it ignores the 22% who experienced no effect and - it could be argued - are "worse" because they were exposed to the cost, effort and risk of chelation (or Detox. - whatever that might be) without experiencing any benefit. Including these people gives a less impressive - but still positive-sounding - 3:1 "Improvement:No Improvement" ratio.

Note also that the original survey data has six "effectiveness" levels (Definitely Helped; Moderate Improvement; Possibly Helped; No Definite Effect; Little Worse; Much Worse) with three "improved" ratings and only two "worsened".

But how likely is this to represent reality?

Taking a look further up the list (in the "Drugs" section, appropriately), we come to "Secretin" (both IV and Transdermal). The "scores" for these treatments are as follows:

Secretin IV:

Got Worse - 7%
No Effect - 44%
Got Better - 48%

Secretin Transdermal:

Got Worse - 10%
No Effect - 49%
Got Better - 41%

So how does this compare with double-blinded studies? According to the ARI parent survey, IV secretin was 48% effective (a little less than half). The studies done by Repligen (which had a strong motive to find a positive effect) showed that IV secretin was no better than placebo.

So, does this mean that chelation is likely to be better, since it has a better win:loss ration?

Sadly, no.

Chelation is still "topical", it has a lot of people "talking it up" at the moment and, as a result, will rate higher. As parents experience the inevitable "treatment failures" and see the cycles of the disorder coming around again, they will become disenchanted with chelation and it will gradually fall from favor.

If we could go back and see the poll numbers for secretin during its heyday, we would see - I suspect - much the same result. High "effectiveness" numbers when everyone was talking about how secretin was going to "cure" autistic children, followed by a slide from grace as the studies after study showed no effect.

In a way, the chelation promoters have learned a valuable lesson from secretin - you'll notice that they are not encouraging real scientists to study chelation for autism in a blinded fashion. I suspect that they are none too happy with Dr James Adams, who is about to show just how effective chelation is for treating autism.

As they say...stay tuned!

Now, what about the idea - so popular with "alternative" medicine promoters - that the patient (or parent, in this case) is the best judge of whether a treatment works? And the corollary of that hypothesis, that opinion polls are an acceptable means of collecting efficacy "data"? Well, decades of scientific study have shown us that people are not very good judges of whether or not a treatment is working. Else, why would practitioners - and patients! - have been so willing to pursue purging, bleeding, cupping (making a comeback in "traditional" medicine), amulets, potions and general shamanism? Because - in their opinion - it appeared to work!

If you want to know how this could happen, go back to my "Field Guide to Pseudoscience and Quackery: Part 4" and read the last part:

"...the quackeries appear to “work” for the following reasons:

[1] The natural course of the disease: Fully 95% of the ailments for which people seek medical attention are self-limited – meaning that they will get better without treatment. The classic example is the “common cold”, for which there have been quack remedies since the dawn of human history. Left untreated, the average “cold” will resolve in about seven days. Vigorously treated by either quack remedies or real medicine (antibiotics, steroids, etc.), the average “cold” will resolve in about a week.

Also, some disorders are more severe at the outset than they are later - a good example being stroke. Quack practitioners have been making a living for years by treating recent stroke victims with vitamins, herbs, hyperbaric oxygen and the like and then taking credit for their improvement. Of course, even if you don't do anything, most stroke victims are much better a month or two after their stroke than they are the day it happens. The same is true of certain childhood developmental disorders, where quacks eagerly take credit for the natural progression of the disorder as the child gets older.

It's a wonder that someone hasn't promoted giving typical kids mega-vitamins, minerals or chelation in order to improve their verbal skills, coordination and social interaction. After all, if you give high-dose vitamin B6 to one year-olds, they'll have better language, social and physical skills when they're five. Of course, so will the kids that don't get the treatment. It's the natural progression of childhood - even in developmentally delayed children. Developmental delay does not mean developmental stasis.

[2] Regression to the mean: Most chronic or long-term ailments have a cyclic or fluctuating course – getting worse and then getting better and then repeating the cycle. Generally, people will seek medical attention for these ailments when they are at or near their worst. As a result, any treatment given – even an ineffective one – will usually be followed by improvement as the natural course of the disease takes it toward milder symptoms, potentially fooling the patient into believing that the remedy “worked”.

[3] Self-fulfilling Prophesy: Often called the “placebo effect”, which is a gross misnomer. The placebo is not having an effect – it is, in fact, completely inert. What is happening is that the patient, having been examined, given a diagnosis and prescribed a treatment, is expecting to get better. This expectation will cause them to unconsciously emphasize any feeling that their symptoms are improving and ignore or minimize any feeling that the symptoms are staying the same or worsening. In fact, since worry and feeling helpless have repeatedly been shown to increase pain, it is not surprising that a sense of hope – even false hope – will improve bothersome symptoms.

[4] Sense of Empowerment: The one thing that quackeries do that real medicine would do well to emulate is the way they involve the patient in the treatment. Modern medicine has largely tried to cut the patient “out of the loop” as much as possible – with implanted devices, long-acting medications, transdermal patches, etc. – because patient compliance is a huge variable in any treatment regimen. By eliminating this variable as much as possible, real medicine manages to attain more predictable and uniform results. This is all well and good, but it has the undesired effect of making the patient feel like a passive recipient of treatment, rather than an active participant. By giving the patient complex, arcane rituals to perform, the quack gives their patient a sense of control over this aspect of their life."

Bottom line - opinion polls are not a substitute for data. They aren't even a good first approximation of data. In fact, they have only a 50:50 chance of pointing in the same general direction that real data might point. And before someone says it, let me point out that none of this involves "lying" - just fooling ourselves.


Saturday, February 11, 2006

Inadvertent Irony in Islamdom

My article about Quantum Noise is rapidly growing into a smallish book. While I work at trimming it down to blog-friendly size, I wanted to comment on another variety of irrationality in the world.

No doubt you have all seen the pictures, on the telly or in the newspapers, of Islamic outrage over a cartoon initially published on September 30, 2005, in the Danish newspaper "Jyllands Posten". It wasn't until the cartoons were re-published in the French newspaper "France Soir" and the German "Die Welt" - and others - a few weeks ago that the "Islamic World" exploded in paroxysms of violence. Apparently, "Jyllands Posten" doesn't have a wide circulation among Muslims - and I can't find it at my local newsstand, either.

Here's the ironic part:

In response to cartoons that portray the Prophet Mohammed and Islam in general as promoting violence, destruction and murder, Muslims all over the world have exploded in an orgy of violence, destruction and murder.

I think that pretty much proves the point, don't you?

Images of Muslims rioting, burning embassies (usually the Danish Embassy, but they aren't too particular), screaming hate and invective while holding the Koran and burning home-made Danish flags (I suppose the local Angry Mob Supply shops don't stock flags other than US and British these days) has certainly driven home the point that Islam does not promote or even condone violence, destruction and murder. Right?

As my son would say - "Not!"

Let me make doubly sure that everyone is getting the point - people are dying and property is being destroyed because of a newspaper editorial cartoon.

A cartoon is killing people.

Seriously - I'm not making this up!

Those involved - at least, those who can calm down enough to talk to the ubiquitous reporters - claim that they are avenging an insult to the Prophet Mohammed. Apparently, destruction and murder in the name of the Prophet is not nearly as insulting to his memory as a cartoon. Am I missing something?

To be sure, not all Muslims are involved - not even a majority. However, the number of "prominent Muslims" (e.g. Imams and other Islamic religious leaders) who have condemned the violence has been...underwhelming. And I don't see any of them out in front of the mobs saying "Stop!"

Certainly the cartoons were in marginally poor taste - so are many political cartoons. And I have seen cartoons disrespectful of other religious icons on numerous occasions and have failed to note an explosion of rage and violence from Christians, Jews and Buddhists. So what has happened to the "Islamic World's" sense of proportion? These cartoons were worth a stern rebuke and a flurry of letters to the editor - perhaps even a boycott of "Jyllands Posten". But rioting, burning and killing?

Most of you - at least those who weren't out burning Danish flags and spewing spittle all over your Koran - are probably thinking, "There's got to be more to this than just a cartoon." And you're right - the "Islamic World" has a serious axe to grind with the West, and it all goes back to something that happened outside Vienna.

I can hear you say to yourself, "Vienna? What happened outside Vienna? What about Western exploitation, support of Middle Eastern dictatorships and support of Zionism?"

No, the problem actually started outside the city gates of Vienna when Jan Sobieski and a small force of Polish cavalry (Hussars) routed a Muslim army of over 300,000 (if you believe contemporary accounts, which may have inflated the numbers a bit) led by Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa. This was the high-water mark of the armies of Islam. From that moment on, they were on the defensive and were gradually pushed completely out of Europe. If it hadn't been for Jan Sobieski's gallant attack, Europe would now be Islamic and world events would have unfolded in a completely different fashion. Maybe better, maybe worse, but certainly different.

How do I know that this is what the Islamic world is really upset about? Let me tell you the date of Sobieski's attack:

September 11, 1683

How's that for a non-coincidence?

So, the next time someone in the Western world asks "Why do they hate us?" (and they will, you can bet), you can tell them to blame Jan Sobieski and those gallant and colorful Polish Hussars.


Monday, February 06, 2006

The Captain has turned off the Comment Moderation light - you are free to post comments again, with caution.

Dear Readers,

After an unplanned Internet outage (and telephone outage and cable TV outage... ahhhh, it was bliss!), I returned to find that certain people (you know who you are!) had posted comments that were on (or over) the edge of my tolerance. I will quote from the most egregious of them:

"You will jump at any chance to knock those of us who help our kids with chelation because you are terrified we are right which would confirm you as a child abuser for refusing to help your daughter and allowing her to rot in the abyss of autism."

Now, I have no problems with people disagreeing - even disagreeing emphatically (or vehemently) and I am certainly no stranger to sarcasm (yet another of my New Year's Resolutions trashed before February) and even ridicule. However, I will not tolerate abuse of innocents on this blog - and I consider dragging someone's children into the argument abuse of innocents.

If you want to call each other names (within reason - nothing they won't allow on television, which limits you very little), cast aspersions or even make fun of each other (or me), that's OK. But keep it to the people involved in the discussion!

Just to make it clear - calling children names or saying that they are going to "...rot in the abyss of autism." brings out the enraged mother bear in me. Don't do it if you don't want to get mauled.

They say that a word to the wise is sufficient. Now we get to see who's wise.

'Nuff said?

I think so.

You may resume normal commenting.


Thursday, February 02, 2006

27th Skeptic's Circle

Welcome to the 27th Skeptic's Circle! I hope you enjoy your visit! Now, pull up box and listen to the story...

There were still traces of the sunset visible on the western horizon as Prometheus slouched into the command tent. He paused outside to savor the cool night air before pulling aside the canvas flap and stepping in. He gestured to the staff to keep their seats as he pulled up a camp chair and collapsed into it.

Taking a moment to gather his thoughts, he could hear the sound of artillery in the distance – mostly outgoing, but a few scattered explosions could be heard in front and behind their lines.

"You’d have thought they’d have either gotten the range or stopped shooting." he muttered to his artillery staff officer.

"You’d think so, sir, but they haven’t. It’s mostly falling short or long – we haven’t been hit but the local towns and farms are taking a pounding."

The artillery officer glanced at a sheaf of papers. "Their artillery is too weak to range us, but they overload the powder charge to try and make up for it. They can’t hit the broad side of a barn and they’ve blown up or shot out most of their pieces."

Just then, a shell passed overhead making a horrific shriek, landing with a dull thud far behind them. A few of the staff members flinched, but most didn’t even seem to notice.

"That was one from the Generation Rescue Brigade, sir. It makes a hell of a noise, but they haven’t hit anything yet – and they’re mostly duds. Even if you did get hit, I wouldn’t take it personally – they probably weren’t aiming at you." He took a quick look at his briefing papers. "Their guns are small-caliber and their rifling is shot-out – only effective for scaring the civilians…and occasionally killing a few of them."

Prometheus stretched to see the situation map. "Is there any way we could move our lines so that the civilians wouldn’t catch it so badly?" The operations officer looked up from updating a map and said, "Sir, no matter where we’ve moved, the civilians keep getting pounded – I think they’re targeting them deliberately because they can’t do us any real damage."

Just then, Orac swept into the tent, whacking his cavalry Stetson against his thigh to knock off the road dust. "Orac, you old horse-blanket! Good to see you!" shouted Prometheus, clapping him on the shoulder and raising another cloud of pale dust. "I see that your brigade has been raising Hell all over the front – even got in a few good raids behind their lines. Great work!"

Orac shrugged with characteristic modesty. "We’ve been keeping busy, keeping them off-balance. Just doing our bit."

"And getting a price on your head for your efforts, I see." said Prometheus. They were interrupted by the dramatic entrance of Autism Diva. "I hope I’m not late." she said, brushing dust from her cloak.

"Not exactly regulation headgear, is that?" said Prometheus, pointing to her tiara. "It is in my brigade.", retorted the Diva. "Now that must be an interesting sight." muttered Orac under his breath.

"What were you saying about headgear?" said Bartholomew Cubbins from the tent flap as he removed one of his several hats. "I’m sure that I have one here that will satisfy whatever regulation you care to quote."

One by one and in small groups, the other Allied commanders filed into the tent. They exchanged greetings, got coffee and gradually settled into seats in front of the large map set up at one end of the tent.

Once they were all gathered, Prometheus stood up in front of the map and said, "Thank you all from taking time from the war to meet here tonight for our weekly conference. We’re a long way from final victory, but because of your efforts, we are closer to it this week than we were last week." He took a look around the room. "Now, I’d like to start off with a short report on the enemy order of battle. If you look at these charts here, here, here and here, you’ll see what we are up against." as he tapped each chart with his pointer.

"Our enemy is aggressive, committed and utterly ruthless – they will not hesitate to use any tactic that they think will aid them. They are not bound by the Rules of Science as we are, and they use that to their advantage. However, they are fighting on the side of ignorance and superstition, and so they will ultimately fail. Our job is to hasten that defeat and to minimize civilian casualties and suffering. The general population may not always understand that we are fighting for them, but we must never forget that."

As Prometheus sat down, Orac stood and strode to the map. Whacking his riding crop against it, he said, "My brigade has been hitting them wherever we see an opportunity. Last week, we did a deep penetration raid on Enthnoscience, causing heavy damage. Reconnaissance photos indicate that it will take them months to become combat effective again."

Striking another part of the map, he continued, "We also detected unexpected activity in the Alternative Medicine Spam sector and launched a spoiling attack. It looks like we set them back a bit." After pausing to answer a few questions, Orac sat down again, propping his dusty riding boots on an empty chair.

Next, Autism Diva stood and walked to the map. "My brigade has been concentrating our attacks on the Autism sector, punching holes in the Autism-Mercury Brigade and rolling up their flanks. We’ve cut off a number of their subordinate units and expect to have them mopped up directly. It will be hard, bloody fighting, but we’re confident that we will succeed." Her face took on a grim expression.

"However, what I wanted to talk about tonight is the grave potential for civilian casualties in our sector. We’ve already discovered the casual slaughter of a young child, for which the Autism-Mercury Brigade bears direct responsibility. Of course, they claim that he was a 'casualty of war' and have even tried to blame us for his death. Beware – these people are absolutely without conscience and will stop at nothing." She sat down without another word.

Walking to the map in the somber silence that followed Autism Diva’s announcement, Bartholomew Cubbins bowed his head for a moment before proceding. "My scouting units have been analyzing intercepts from the various units in the Autism Army Group East and have found a number of weaknesses in their plans." He proceeded with a detailed analysis of the myriad weaknesses of the "mercury-causes-autism hypothesis.

As he was moving to sit down, the air was ripped by the howl of a multi-engine jet bomber flying at tent-top level. It flew directly overhead, bathing them all in noise and the smell of burned kerosene, before turning away to the front lines. Shortly afterward, a rippling series of explosions could be heard far in the distance. Although a few of the staff officers had dived under tables, the Allied commanders sat or stood immobile, a look of stunned surprise on their faces.

"What was that!?" shouted Orac.

"Oh, that was the Bolen Bomber.", said Prometheus. "He comes over every night about this time. Comes in low and fast and makes a Hell of a racket, but he never hits anything. That is, he never hits us - half of the time he drops his bomb-load on his own side. That’s why our anti-aircraft guns don’t shoot at him – he’s doing our job for us."

Gathering his scattered notes Dr. RW, stepped to the podium and gave his briefing on the latest maneuvers in "alternative medicine." He was followed by Xenophile, who gave a run-down on cell-phone cancer scares.

After a short break to refill coffee cups, Paige's Page gave a brief tear=down on sports teams and their version of the old "Gott mit uns." fallacy. From the Rachel had a masterful analysis of Red Rain episodes that have had the anti-skeptics twisting in the wind and Ahistorically followed with an insightful demonstration of lying with statistics (and graphs)

The Second Sight detailed an punishing attack on Homeopathy, one of the oldest brigades in the enemy's order of battle and one that has been reconstituted more times than Florida orange juice. Moment of Science gave a stirring description of how he has dealt with Monsters and Creationists and The Incredible Hallq outlined his hand-to-hand battle with hypnosis.

Lord Runolfr gave a critical briefing on the roles given to science in the movies and was followed by Skeptico, who gave back-to-back briefings on Quantum Chopra and the media and their softball approach to "alternative medicine" .

Kevin Leitch detailed how the autism alties still don't understand the basics about science and Be Lambic or Green wrapped up the conference with a humorous tale of a psychic whose second sight needs glasses.

The eastern horizon was showing the first pale glimmers of daybreak as the Allied commanders said their farewells and mounted their steeds, helicopters, jeeps or APC's for the long trip back their commands. As he watched them go, Prometheus turned to his XO and, with a catch in his voice and a trace of moisture in his eyes, said "With allies like that, we can't help but win!"

Thank you one and all for your contributions, your support and, above all, your efforts in our common fight against ignorance and superstition.