May 23 2016

Who Owns Your Genetic information?

genetic codeA genetic testing company, Myriad, is embroiled in a controversy over who owns genetic information. The company performs genetic testing, such as for BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes with variants that are associated with higher risk of breast cancer.

It has been the company’s policy to release information to their clients on any pathological gene variants, those known or suspected of being associated with higher breast cancer risk. If, however, the client has what is currently believed to be a benign variant, that is all they are told. They aren’t given the specific information about the gene sequence, just a note that it is benign.

Further, the company has declined to share its vast database of information with open source databases being used for research. The company cited patient privacy as their reason for not sharing data.

Now, several clients have sued Myriad to have their full genetic information released to them. It turns out a new rule under HIPPA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) requires that companies release full genetic information to patients. Faced with this the company has decided to release the information to those who request it, but insist that it is voluntary and will still not release such information routinely (only to individuals who request it).

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May 19 2016

Skepticism and the Fallacy of Relative Privation

There has been a lively exchange surrounding John Horgan’s article about skeptics, which I responded to previously. (See also Orac’s and Daniel Loxton’s responses.) At the core of Horgan’s piece is a logical fallacy so common, I feel it deserves special attention. In fact, PZ Myers wrote approvingly of Horgan’s fallacy, showing that it is still alive and well.

That fallacy can be called the fallacy of relative privation, which is a type of red herring or distraction from actual issues. The fallacy is essentially an argument that a problem is not important or does not deserve attention and resources because there are other more important problems. “Why are you wasting your time on X when there are children dying of cancer?”

In Horgan’s case, he would like us to end all war and bring about everlasting world peace before we tackle lesser problems like quackery, fraud, global warming, vaccine denial, the environment, and other such trivialities.

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Comments: 37

May 17 2016

John Horgan is “Skeptical of Skeptics”

NECSS2016This past weekend at NECSS 2016 we invited science journalist John Horgan to give a talk on “Skepticism: Hard Versus Soft Targets.” We’re always game for some critical introspection. It keeps things interesting if nothing else.

Unfortunately the talk, which he has now published on Scientific American’s website (which means it’s fair game), was more than a bit disappointing – not because he was critical, but because he does not seem to get skepticism with a small or a big “S.” The result was a string of cherry picked strawmen.

He begins:

“I hate preaching to the converted. If you were Buddhists, I’d bash Buddhism. But you’re skeptics, so I have to bash skepticism.”

That makes you a contrarian, not a skeptic. How about telling it like it is? Most ideas and movements are a mix of good and bad, and it often takes some effort and nuance to tease this apart. Or, you can just “bash” an entire philosophy simplistically because you fancy yourself an independent thinker. There is also nothing wrong with “preaching” to the choir – it’s not about conversion, but education.

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Comments: 192

May 16 2016

Review of Probiotics

probioticsThe idea behind probiotics superficially sounds reasonable – friendly bacteria are important to the functioning of our gastrointestinal (GI) system and immune system. Probiotic products are supposed to supplement those friendly bacteria with live bacteria from certain foods, such as yogurt, or even in capsules.

A recent paper, however, reviews studies looking at probiotics in healthy subjects, finding no evidence for benefit. Let’s take a close look at this study and the science of probiotics.

The systematic review focused on studies looking at the change in the composition of bacteria in feces in healthy adults taking probiotics compared to placebo. They found:

Seven RCTs investigating the effect of probiotic supplementation on fecal microbiota in healthy adults were identified and included in the present systematic review. The quality of the studies was assessed as medium to high. Still, no effects were observed on the fecal microbiota composition in terms of α-diversity, richness, or evenness in any of the included studies when compared to placebo. Only one study found that probiotic supplementation significantly modified the overall structure of the fecal bacterial community in terms of β-diversity when compared to placebo.

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Comments: 69

May 10 2016

Criminalizing Climate Change Denial

Temp_anomalyHere is a non-controversial topic – some attorneys general in the US are exploring the idea of criminal charges against certain climate change deniers. This round of the climate debate was triggered by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman who issued a subpoena to ExxonMobil for financial records, e-mails, and other documents. This was followed by Attorney General Claude E. Walker of the U.S. Virgin Islands who issued a subpoena to the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) for their documents related to their climate research and policy activity.

Investigation of oil companies is partly financial, did they mislead investors and overvalue their companies by ignoring the financial costs of climate change and the potential of having to leave fossil fuel assets in the ground?

Investigation of the CEI has a different focus, are they engaged in a conspiracy to mislead the public and affect public policy by knowingly manufacturing false doubt about the science of climate change? Continue Reading »

Comments: 83

May 09 2016

Still No Association of Cell Phones and Brain Cancer

cell.phone.giI have been following the scientific research looking into any possible association between cell phones and brain cancer. A new study coming out of Australia adds to this literature and argues against any association.

The question is obviously an important one, and has drawn some public attention. However, scientists argue about whether or not a causal relationship between cell phones and cancer is impossible or just really low. I fall into the really low camp, but the distinction is minor.

Plausibility

The key fact to understand about cell phones is that they produce non-ionizing radiation. By definition, ionizing radiation is powerful enough to break chemical bonds. This is a health concern because breaking such bonds could cause mutations in DNA, and some of those mutations may turn a healthy cell into a cancerous cell. This is the primary reason that radiation causes cancer.

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Comments: 7

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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Comments: 26

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: 34

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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Comments: 11

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: 59

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