May 06 2016

Acupuncture for Tension-Type Headache

acupuncture2A newly updated Cochrane systematic review of 12 studies looking at acupuncture for the treatment of tension-type headaches (TTH) concluded:

The available evidence suggests that a course of acupuncture consisting of at least six treatment sessions can be a valuable option for people with frequent tension-type headache.

This has led to another round of headlines that, “Acupuncture works but no one knows how.”

A closer look at the data, however, does not back up that conclusion, in my opinion. Cochrane is generally considered to be the gold standard for evidence-based systematic reviews, but their history is dodgy when it comes to unconventional treatments. For example, they famously had to withdraw their review of homeopathic occillococcinum for the flu because they concluded, although the evidence was insufficient to recommend, it was “promising” and deserved further research.

Their updated review is not much better, however:

There is insufficient good evidence to enable robust conclusions to be made about Oscillococcinum® in the prevention or treatment of influenza and influenza-like illness. Our findings do not rule out the possibility that Oscillococcinum® could have a clinically useful treatment effect but, given the low quality of the eligible studies, the evidence is not compelling.

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May 05 2016

Trump and GMO Labels – Never Means Never

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump smiles during a campaign stop, Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2016, in Bluffton, S.C. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Donald Trump is the last Republican standing, which means he will be that party’s nominee. I know is this a studiously non-political blog, but this is an issue that transcends politics.

It doesn’t matter if Trump is left, right, liberal, conservative, libertarian, progressive, Democrat or Republican (he seems to be all of those things, sometimes in the same sentence). It doesn’t even matter if he is a Washington insider or outsider.

What should interest American voters the most is that Trump is an arrogant conspiracy theorist. He is an antivaccine loon. Worse, as I pointed out before, he has been publicly corrected on his incorrect views about vaccines for at least a decade, and shows no evidence of modifying his views.

He also (no surprise) denies human-caused global climate change, and even then just loosely parrots standard talking points and gets them wrong. He flirts with 911 truth. He famously is an Obama birther.

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Comments: 28

May 03 2016

Pulling Back Canadian Censorship of Science

HarperDuring the recent Harper administration in Canada, scientists doing federal research were effectively censored from speaking with the media. This was a clear attempt at controlling the narrative with regard to environmental issues, from global warming to the effect of fisheries and water quality.

Now that the Harper administration has been replaced by the Trudeau administration, the restrictions are being lifted and scientists are able to talk about how oppressive the Harper restrictions truly were.

Nature has an in depth report, which discusses the totalitarian atmosphere created by the Harper restrictions. Essentially reporters could no longer directly contact federal scientists to verify facts or comment on their research. Rather, they had to go through a series of government officials. This became more frustrating and time consuming than navigating the DMV, and as a result reporters could never get any comment prior to their deadlines.

The end result was that journalists simply stopped trying. There was no point. This effectively cut off communication between federal scientists in Canada and the press.

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May 02 2016

Science Is Not (Entirely) A Social Construct

Humans have a frustrating tendency to prefer simplicity. This is probably necessary, given that we have finite brains trying to grapple with a massive and complex universe.

I have found that part of the intellectual journey is to think carefully about the balance between the need for manageable simplicity while recognizing that our models are incomplete schematics. In other words – don’t confuse our necessarily simplified models with reality.

What is frustrating is the tendency to rigidly apply one concept to a complex topic, as if it explains everything and applies universally. Even scientists do this, thinking that the new phenomenon they discovered explains everything.

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Comments: 27

Apr 29 2016

Some Battery Click-Bait

battery-24In an updated version of Dante’s Inferno there is one level of science hell that is specifically reserved for headline writers. In their hell there are endless signs pointing the way out of their torment, but all the signs are misleading or overhyped. They are therefore perpetually devastated by the difference between what they are promised and the reality.

Take the following headline (please): Researchers have accidentally made batteries that could last 400 times longer. They know the average person is going to read this and think they won’t have to recharge their cell phones but once per year (it’s recharge day, everybody). The headline is not technically wrong, it is just deliberately ambiguous in the use of the term “last.”

There are two ways in which batteries “last” – how long do they last on one charge, and how many charge-recharge cycles do they have. Guess which one we are talking about here.

The news item is also genuinely interesting, and would have grabbed my attention even without the click-bait headline. But first, a quick primer on batteries.

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Comments: 11

Apr 28 2016

What Is Biohacking?

bulletproof-butter-coffeeAfter reading up on biohacking and listening to its proponents, I have come to the conclusion that biohacking is not a real thing. It doesn’t really exist.

Here is how one biohacking site describes what they think it is:

Biohacking is a crazy-sounding name for something not crazy at all—the desire to be the absolute best version of ourselves.

The main thing that separates a biohacker from the rest of the self-improvement world is a systems-thinking approach to our own biology.

You know how coffee feels like a shot of energy to your brain?

Pre-coffee you is sleepy….zzzzzz…

Post-coffee you is WIDE AWAKE!!

The only difference is the coffee in your stomach.

The lesson is this: What you put into your body has an ENORMOUS impact on how you feel.

See what I mean? So, drinking coffee is “biohacking?” If you look at what is considered biohacking it essentially amounts to living a healthy lifestyle through diet and exercise, with the addition of the usual assortment of pseudoscientific nonsense. This is nothing but a rebranding of standard self-help quackery.

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Comments: 22

Apr 26 2016

Organic Pesticides

pesticidesHave you seen the pro-organic propaganda video with the happy family who switches to organic only food and the pesticides disappear from their urine? It has over 5 million hits as of this writing. This is a core fearmongering strategy of the organic lobby.

Of course, there is no discussion about the absolute level of the pesticides, and the fact that such levels are insignificant and pose no known risk. But there is a deeper deception in this video and many studies looking at the difference in pesticide exposure between conventional and organic produce. They are only testing for pesticides not used by organic farmers. They are not testing for pesticides that are used in organic farming.

The game, therefore, is completely rigged, and the outcome is assured. If they tested only for organic pesticides the results would be flipped.

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Comments: 7

Apr 25 2016

How Old are Classic Fairy Tales?

beautyMy daughters will occasionally relate some bit of culture from their school, such as a joke or prank, that I recognize from my youth four decades ago. It is amazing to think that these memes have persisted in “kiddy culture” largely unchanged over decades, transmitted largely from older to younger children, though siblings or perhaps schoolmates. Of course, some of these memes were already old when I was a child. How far back do they go, I wonder?

Forget slightly crude jokes, what about classic fairy tales? Many of these tales were first recorded in the 19th century by the Brothers Grimm, but they were German academics who were just collecting folktales, not authoring them. Those folktales existed in oral tradition for a long time prior to being written down, but again, how long?

A recent study published in the Royal Society Open Science seeks to answer that question. The authors, Sara Graça da Silva and Jamshid J. Tehrani, took an evolutionary approach to the question.

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Comments: 2

Apr 22 2016

Illegal Immigration and the Law of Unintended Consequences

Undocumented immigrantsOne thing I have learned as a science communicator over the last two decades, trying to digest many areas of science, is that stuff is complicated. It is a good rule of thumb that everything is more complicated than you might originally think.

This complexity takes various forms. First, unless you are at the leading edge of expertise in an area, your understanding of that topic is relatively superficial. There is greater depth and nuance than your current understanding, which is likely a necessary simplification.

Second, there are few clean answers in science. Some things, obviously, are well established to the point that we can treat them as facts, but many more things than we might naively suppose are controversial on some level. The evidence is mixed, imperfect, and incomplete and there remain various opinions about how to interpret the data.

As an aside, this is one of my peeves about how science is often communicated. A complex debate is distilled down to, scientists think X (representing just one side of that debate). Each time a new study is published apparently supporting one position, that position is now correct and the others are now wrong. All the nuance is lost.

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Apr 21 2016

Huffpo Attacks GMO Bananas

GMO-bananaEric Gimenez, writing for the Huffpo, recently wrote a typical anti-GMO piece, hitting many of the common themes. He focuses on the GMO banana with enhanced vitamin A, but his article reflects the poor logic, tortured arguments, and general anti-science of the anti-GMO crowd.

The GMO Banana

I wrote about the GMO banana controversy here. Bananas are a staple crop in parts of the world, including East Africa where it can represent up to 70% of calories consumed. Vitamin A deficiency is also common in this region. According to National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) acting director Dr Andrew Kiggundu, 52% of children under five in Uganda suffer from Vitamin A deficiency, while iron deficiency accounts for 40% of deaths in this age group.

The idea is to engineer a banana cultivar native to the region so that it produces more beta carotene and iron. The cultivar is already adapted to the region, and the locals are already heavily growing and relying upon this staple crop.

Further, the GMO is being developed by the Ugandan government, NARO, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). This is primarily a humanitarian project created by the local government and farmers.

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