Archive for September, 2012

Sep 28 2012

Responding to Creationists Responding to Bill Nye

Bill Nye (the Science Guy) has a YouTube video that is part of the Big Think series, in which he makes the argument that teaching children creationism rather than evolutionary theory does them a great disservice. He makes a very good point with some supporting arguments. The Creation Museum has decided to put out a response video that is, as you might guess, fantastically lame and both logically and factually challenged. As I am fond of pointing out, the denial of evolution by creationists is so profoundly at odds with reality, they have no choice but to play it loose with facts and logic. It does occasionally make for an entertaining spectacle, and is a target-rich environment for “teaching moments.”

The video begins with Dr. David Menton, who has a PhD in Biology and works at Brown University, addressing Nye’s opening statement. Nye, unfortunately, did begin his video with a poor choice of words – he said that denial of evolution is unique to the United States, which is not true. It is clear from what he says next the point he was trying to make. There is an interesting dichotomy in the US in that we are a technologically advanced country with great intellectual capital in science and technology, and yet evolution denial is very prominent in the US. The US may be unique for the extent of this contrast, and I think that’s what Nye was going for. (Only Turkey has a greater percentage of the population that denies evolution.)

Menton uses Nye’s statement as an opportunity to make what is essentially an argument from popularity, detailing how many people around the world deny evolution (including, apparently, mooslums, whoever they are – perhaps some cow-worshipping sect? I know, too easy.). Popular support or denial of evolution is completely irrelevant to whether or not evolution is scientifically valid. If anything, the popularity of evolution denial supports Nye’s position that teaching children pseudoscience is a real problem.

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Sep 27 2012

MS and Lyme Disease

Published by under Conspiracy Theories

The world must be a very scary place for a conspiracy theorist. In their world there is a vast sinister conspiracy that can control entire industries and professions, that supersede governments, and have almost limitless power.  In the mind of a conspiracy theorist the very people who are supposed to help and protect us are instead villains exploiting the public in the most heinous way for their own profit – and not just some individuals, but entire professions.

As experienced as I am examining conspiracy theories I always experience an uncomfortable cognitive dissonance when reading a new conspiracy theory – how can someone actually believe this stuff? Their brain must operate under a different set of algorithms from my own.

Recently I was sent a link to this website claiming, without a hint of self-doubt, that there has been a 100 year conspiracy to lie to the world about multiple sclerosis (MS). Scientists and doctors, they assert, know that MS (and many other neurological diseases, like ALS, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s disease) is really caused by a Borrelia infection of the brain – Lyme disease.

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Sep 25 2012

Dead Fish Wins Ig Nobel

Published by under Neuroscience

The Ig Nobel awards are a humorous take on the real thing, highlighting scientific studies over the last year that make you laugh, then make you think. This year’s winner in the neuroscience category is bringing back around a news story from earlier in the year : Neural correlates of interspecies perspective taking in the post-mortem Atlantic Salmon: An argument for multiple comparisons correction.

Essentially the researchers used an functional MRI scanner (fMRI) to examine the brain activity of a dead salmon – and they found some. The point of this study was to generate an absurd false positive in order to demonstrate how fMRI studies might be plagued by false positives. It was a clever idea, and it garnered the attention to their point I suspect the researchers were after.

This strategy, of generating an absurd false positive to make a point, reminded me of the study showing that listening to music about old age made subjects actually younger. The point of the study was actually to demonstrate how exploiting researcher degrees of freedom can generate false positive data, even when the hypothesis is impossible.

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Sep 24 2012

Call Me Crazy, But…

Elyse over at Skepchick has written an interesting commentary on the use of potentially hurtful language, such as colloquial use of the term “crazy.” Her conclusion:

That maybe, if someone tells me that a term hurts them, I don’t get to decide whether or not I’m actually hurting them. I know they’re hurt. My only decision is whether or not I want to keep hurting them or not. Usually, the answer is no.

The comments range the spectrum of opinion from full agreement to complete disagreement. I do agree with Elyse that this is a fascinating discussion, partly, in my opinion, because there is no objective answer. I would like to offer my opinion and explore some angles of this issue that were not addressed by Elyse or the commenters.

Taking an ethical view, there appear to be several legitimate ethical principles at stake with the question of using potentially offensive language. One principle is that of nonmaleficience - the directive not to inflict evil or cause harm to others; in this case the harm is psychological due to offensive language. Another principle is that of personal liberty, in this case freedom of expression. These two principles appear to be at odds with respect to the question of offensive language.

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Sep 20 2012

The GM Corn Rat Study

By all accounts this study looks like the perfect storm of ideologically motivated pseudoscience. French researchers Gilles-Eric Séralini at the University of Caen, who have a history of opposition to GM food, have published a highly dubious study allegedly linking consuming the GM corn or exposure to the roundup pesticide with increased risk of tumors and death. However:

In an unusual move, the research group did not allow reporters to seek outside comment on their paper before its publication in the peer-reviewed journal Food and Chemical Toxicology and presentation at a news conference in London.

So – they presented their controversial findings, which they consider “alarming,” but prohibited journalists from doing their job before presenting the results. That’s more than suspicious – I think it’s unethical. Transparency in science is critical, especially when that research has immediate implications for public safety and can have a profound effect on public opinion.

It is much easier to provoke fear than to reassure with careful analysis. It’s almost as if the researchers wanted an undiluted initial shock reaction to their research before the careful analysis could even take place.

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Sep 18 2012

A Bit of Homeopathy Nonsense in the BMJ

OK – I’m having one of those “someone is wrong on the internet” moments. But this someone is a fellow physician (Des Spence, a general practitioner from Glasgow)  and the swirling black hole of wrongness is not just on the internet, but published in a generally respected medical journal, the BMJ. Spense is writing in defense of homeopathy, but he is not a homeopath and acknowledges that homeopathy is “bad science,” and the pills are little more than placebos.  What he does do is marshal every “shruggie” bad argument, misinformation, and logical fallacy into a “Gish gallop” of apologist nonsense.

In his introduction he acknowledges that homeopathy doesn’t work, but then states:

Today, homeopathy is medicine’s whipping boy, repeatedly and systematically beaten to the ground. Yet despite explaining that the tablets are just placebos, homeopathy always gets up to take another beating. Some homeopathy is funded by the NHS, through general practice, and in the few homeopathic hospitals. This fact enrages the growling commissars of evidenced based medicine who want homeopathy purged from the NHS.

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Sep 17 2012

No Benefit from Ginkgo biloba in MS

One of the themes of this blog (and my other medical blog, science-based medicine) is that there is a structure and natural history to scientific (and specifically medical) research and in order to understand the answer to any specific scientific question one must look at the whole of the research, not just a single study.

Analyzing individual studies is important because they are the units of which the scientific literature is comprised. Further, some individual studies are large, rigorous, and fairly definitive – but it takes a long time to get there, and most of the scientific literature is comprised of less-than-definitive studies.

There are also recurring patterns in the research that help us put individual studies into context and better arrive at reliable conclusions, which is the whole point of research in the first place. For example, medical studies usually begin with pre-clinical basic science, then progress to pilot clinical studies. A pilot study is small and usually less rigorous in design. Such studies are exploratory – their purpose is to see if we should even bother, and if it will be safe, to do larger more difficult trials. Studies progress with larger or better designed studies until we get to fairly definitive trials. Then and only then do we have some idea if a treatment actually works and is safe.

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Sep 14 2012

The Personal Anecdote as Sales Pitch

Published by under Skepticism

I frequently write about snake oil, dubious treatments, overhyped nonsense, and pure quackery on this blog. Invariably one or more comments show up after such posts that follow the same basic format:

“I don’t care what your science says. I tried this product and it worked for me. I had these symptoms, and then used the magic gadget, and my symptoms improved. Explain that. I don’t know how it works, I just know that it does.”

Of course I understand how compelling personal anecdotes can seem. Understanding all the myriad ways in which we can be fooled into thinking a treatment is effective when it isn’t is part of skepticism and critical thinking, and often what separates skeptics from believers. It is therefore important to explain often why anecdotes should not be compelling, and why they certainly don’t trump rigorous scientific studies.

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Sep 13 2012

Who’s To Blame for Bad Science News Reporting

The work of a science blogger is largely comprised of correcting and criticizing bad science news reporting. I therefore had a love-hate relationship with horrible science reporting – I simultaneously am annoyed and disgusted at the spread of misinformation by professionals who should know better, but delighted by the excellent blog fodder. In fact I see the role of the science blogger as largely filling the gap between scientists and journalists. We tend to be journalists with a strong science background, or scientists who have developed their skill at writing and communicating to the public.

We spend a lot of time lambasting journalists for not doing their job, but in reality there are often three stages and parties involved in the creation of science news: the scientists themselves and the writing in the original paper, the press officers and the press releases they write, and then the journalists and their news articles. In each step of this process their is the potential to distort and exaggerate the findings of the study.

A new study published in PLOS Medicine examines the incidence of “spin” in medical news reporting (exaggerating the clinical effects or implications seen in the study being reported) and the factors that contribute to that spin. What they found is that the single biggest factor predicting the presence of spin in health news reporting is the presence of spin in the abstract of the article written by the scientists themselves.  The authors conclude:

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Sep 11 2012

Creationists Improve Teaching of Evolution in South Korea

This is a wonderfully ironic story from South Korea involving the presentation of evolution in science textbooks. Three months ago we learned that there was a clever effort by South Korean creationists to remove references to evolution in a major science textbook. Nature reported at the time:

A petition to remove references to evolution from high-school textbooks claimed victory last month after the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MEST) revealed that many of the publishers would produce revised editions that exclude examples of the evolution of the horse or of avian ancestor Archaeopteryx. The move has alarmed biologists, who say that they were not consulted. “The ministry just sent the petition out to the publishing companies and let them judge,” says Dayk Jang, an evolutionary scientist at Seoul National University.

This was the result of efforts from a group called STR - the Society for Textbook Revise (I assume it doesn’t translate well), an offshoot of the Korea Association for Creation Research.  I have to admit that their strategy was very clever. School textbooks are notoriously low in quality, especially science textbooks, which can be riddled with errors, bad examples, and poor explanations. The STR apparently realized that they could complain about the poor quality of information related to evolution in South Korea’s high school science textbooks and petition that the bad science be removed from the books.

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