Aug 03 2015

The Holistic Doctor Murder Conspiracy

The antivaccine and CAM (complementary and alternative medicine) communities love a good conspiracy. When you live on the fringe of science and reason, conspiracy theories are your bread and butter. You need some reason to explain why the mainstream scientific community does not endorse your version of reality. It can’t be that the evidence doesn’t support your position, so it must be a conspiracy.

It is therefore no surprise that when a series of CAM practitioners die within a short period of time, antivaxxers see a conspiracy. A conspiracy would support their narrative so nicely, they just know it has to be true.

This story started with the death of Jeff Bradstreet, a “holistic” doctor who believed that vaccines caused his son’s autism. He was overtly anti-vaccine, supported the discredited mercury hypothesis of autism, and treated autism (including his son’s) with a variety of biomedical treatments including chelation therapy and hyperbaric oxygen.

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Jul 31 2015

GMOs and Making Up Your Own Science

Dedicated anti-science groups engage in a number of methods to maintain their propaganda upstream against the scientific evidence. It’s actually not difficult- people are generally very good at motivated reasoning. We can demonize or lionize anything.

Methods include dismissing scientific studies whose conclusions you don’t like, supporting low quality studies you do like, misinterpreting and distorting other studies, and of course cherry picking. Sometimes, however, dedicated activists seem to literally make up studies out of whole cloth, or ideological scientists perform dubious studies to create fodder for their side.

This week on the SGU we interview Kevin Folta (the show will be published tomorrow) about some of his experiences with anti-GMO activists who have no problem making up the science to advance their ideological agenda. The more I look into anti-GMO activism the more I realize that the anti-vaccine movement has nothing on them when it comes to pseudoscience. Their methods are identical. The only real difference is that anti-GMO propaganda is much more mainstream.

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Jul 30 2015

Big Data and Personalized Medicine

Jun Wang, a famous Chinese geneticist, announced that he is going to shift his career into developing an AI (artificial intelligence) system that correlates genetics, behavior, and environmental factors with personal health. The goal is to provide individual recommendations about health and lifestyle based upon those factors.

In this case AI does not refer necessarily to a self-aware computer but just an intelligent system, like the AI that determines the behavior of characters in video games, or that won Jeopardy against human champions.

The real centerpiece of Wang’s vision is the data. He wants to build a database including the genomics data from one million people (and eventually much more), and correlate those genetic factors with lifestyle, environment, and health. What he is proposing, essentially, is using big data and AI systems to take the next step in personalized medicine.

Personalized medicine is currently a popular buzzword – you will find it frequently on alternative medicine sites. This is not because CAM practitioners are ahead of the curve. Rather, they latch onto the latest concepts and then make up the details as they go. It’s easy when you don’t have to do actual research or be science-based.

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Jul 29 2015

Despite Headlines, the EM Drive Is Still Bullshit

Headlines declare, “To the Moon in Four Hours,” and “Star Trek Impulse Drive,” even from mainstream outlets like the Telegraph.

This is an old story that will likely rear its head for years to come. It’s the free energy of space travel. The allure is simply too great for the cranks to ignore.

At issue is the EM Drive, which I wrote about here. The makers of the drive claim that it produces thrust without propellant. Physicists say that such a thing would violate the law of conservation of momemntum. Devices that claim to break a well-established law of physics have a terrible track record.

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Jul 28 2015

Anecdotes and Cannabis Oil

An article making the rounds has this claim in the headline: This Man Was Given 18 Months To Live. Here’s How He Illegally Cured His Cancer. The article further explains that he “cured” his cancer with cannabis oil. This is highly misleading for multiple reasons.

This and other articles tell the story of David Hibbit, a 32 year old man who was diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2012. First, let me say that of course I wish nothing but the best for Mr. Hibbit. I hope his cancer is completely gone and he lives a long life with his family. Cancer is a serious and scary disease. It has touched my family, and I am sure statistically it has touched most people reading this.

That, in fact, is why we have to be so careful when relating stories about cancer. Patients have serious and high-stakes decisions to make about how they are going to treat their cancer. Luring them to bad decisions with false promises and misleading but highly emotional stories is irresponsible.

The core of bad reporting about cancer is the anecdote – the heartfelt story of an individual fighting cancer. Such stories are almost universally highly misleading. The public is being given an emotional narrative, not useful information.

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Jul 27 2015

Artificially Selected Organisms

A new petition to Whitehouse.gov demands mandatory labeling for all “artificially selected organisms.” The petition says:

ASO plants or animals have had their genetic makeup altered to exhibit traits that are not naturally theirs. Artificial selection (or selective breeding) involves the selection of traits that are beneficial to humans, not what helps the organism survive in nature.

And concludes:

80% of Americans support mandatory labels on food containing DNA.

That last bit is true. A survey performed by Oklahoma State University Department of Agricultural Economics found that 80.44% of Americans supported “mandatory labels on foods containing DNA.” That puts into perspective public support for mandatory labels on genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The petition is obviously satire, and I think it represents the perfect use of satire – putting into sharp relief the illogic of a specific position or claim. This is a fight that happens almost every time a GMO supporter argues with a GMO critic. It goes something like this:

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Jul 24 2015

Another Study that Doesn’t Show How Acupuncture Works

The pattern is now quite familiar – a study looking at some physiological outcome while rats or mice are being jabbed with needles is breathlessly presented as, “finally we know how acupuncture works.” As is always the case, a closer look reveals that the study shows nothing of the sort.

The current study making the rounds is, “Effects of Acupuncture, RU-486 on the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis in Chronically Stressed Adult Male Rats.” We are told that acupuncture has the same effect as pain medication, but honestly I don’t see that anywhere in the study.

The study presents two experiments with rats in which there is a control group, a stress group, stress plus acupuncture, and stress plus sham acupuncture. The first thing to notice is that the rats were not actually getting acupuncture. They were getting the fiction known as “electroacupuncture.” Electroacupuncture is not a real thing – it’s just electrical stimulation through a needle which is called an acupuncture needle.

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Jul 23 2015

Stem Cells and the Arc of Technology

I have noticed a common arc to many technologies. First they are known and discussed only by scientists and experts in the field. Then they are picked up technophiles who read nerdy magazines and websites. This is all while the research is preliminary and the technology just a distant hope for the future.

Then something happens that makes awareness of the potential technology go mainstream. This is often a movie depicting the technology, but can also be just an article in a more mainstream magazine or newspaper, an early demonstration of the potential for the technology, or a political controversy surrounding it. Then the hype begins.

The hype phase is driven by the researchers looking for more funding, the technophiles who have already been salivating over the technology for years, and a sensationalist media.

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Jul 21 2015

Expertise and the Illusion of Knowledge

In general people think they know more than they do. This is arguably worse than mere ignorance – having the illusion of knowledge. Psychologist David Dunning (of the Dunning-Kruger effect) recently wrote in an editorial about his own study (which I discuss here):

“What’s curious is that, in many cases, incompetence does not leave people disoriented, perplexed, or cautious. Instead, the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge.”

Dunning was discussing the “ignorant mind.” Further, self-perceived expertise does not protect against this effect and in fact may make it worse. A new paper published in the latest issue of Psychological Science, When Knowledge Knows No Bounds: Self-Perceived Expertise Predicts Claims of Impossible Knowledge, presents four studies exploring the relationship between perceived expertise and the illusion of knowledge.

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Jul 14 2015

Why Pluto is Important

As I write this post we are just minutes away from the closest approach of the New Horizons probe to Pluto, the farthest world we have thus far explored (24 minutes and counting). It’s an exciting moment, not just for astronomy buffs or science enthusiasts, but for humanity. I’m glad to see an appropriate level of excitement among the media and the general public.

Still, a couple of people have commented to me or in my presence that they don’t understand what the big deal is or why this is important, so allow me a moment to explore why I think this is such a big deal.

First, let us not forget what it took to get there. New Horizons is the fastest thing humans ever built. It shot past the moon in 8 hours and 35 minutes, and made a journey of 5 billion kilometers (or 5 terameters, as my friend the Metric Maven would say). On its way it swung around Jupiter to get a gravity assist.

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