Archive for February, 2015

Feb 27 2015

What Color Is This Dress? It’s An Optical Illusion

Published by under Neuroscience

This is pretty amazing – almost as much for how quickly this has gone viral as for the effect itself. There is now an intense debate going on in the intertubes over whether this dress is black and blue or white and gold. Take a look and decide for yourself. Buzzfeed has a poll which currently puts it at 72% white and gold, and 28% black and blue. Right now there are about 2 million votes, so that is probably statistically significant.

I see black and blue, no matter what screen or version of that picture I look at. It does not seem to be an issue with the monitor or viewing conditions.

The reason, in my opinion, this has gone so viral so quickly is that people are legitimately freaked out by the realization that how they see the world is ultimately a subjective construction of our brains. Taylor Swift tweeted about the debate:

“I don’t understand this odd dress debate and feel like it’s a trick somehow. I’m confused and scared. PS It’s OBVIOUSLY BLUE AND BLACK.”

That about sums it up. She thinks it must be a trick (it is – a trick of the brain), and is scared and confused. At the same time she is caps-lock-certain that her perception of the dress’s color is the objective truth.

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151 responses so far

Feb 26 2015

Liberals and Conservatives Both Resist Science, But Differently

Published by under Culture and Society

There have been a number of studies looking at how ideological belief influence attitudes toward science. It is no surprise that in general people, of whatever ideological bent, engage in motivated reasoning to deny science that appears to contradict their religious or political beliefs. There are different views, however, regarding whether or not the two main political ideologies in the US, liberal and conservative, are equal or substantially different in their resistance to science.

A series of articles in a special section of The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science explore this question.  In a commentary summarizing the findings, Kraft et al write:

The studies presented in the preceding section of the volume consistently find evidence for hyperskepticism toward scientific evidence among ideologues, no matter the domain or context—and this skepticism seems to be stronger among conservatives than liberals. Here, we show that these patterns can be understood as part of a general tendency among individuals to defend their prior attitudes and actively challenge attitudinally incongruent arguments, a tendency that appears to be evident among liberals and conservatives alike.

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24 responses so far

Feb 24 2015

Anti-GMO Propaganda

Published by under General Science

There is so much anti-science propaganda out there I often feel like I am emptying the ocean with a spoon. Just today I was faced with an array of choices for my post – should I take on anti-vaccine, anti-GMO, or anti-AGW propaganda? For today, anyway, anti-GMO won. I’ll get to the others eventually.

This was sent to me by a reader – 5 reasons to avoid GMOs.  The content is mostly tired anti-GMO tropes (lies, really) that have been thoroughly debunked, but it is good to address such propaganda in a concise way. Also, it is a useful demonstration of the intellectual dishonesty of the anti-GMO movement. I may not get through all of them today – each one is so densely packed with wrong, and it takes longer to correct a misconception than to create one. Here is point #1 – GMOs are not healthy:

GMOs are unhealthy: Since the introduction of GMOs in the mid-1990s, the number of food allergies has sky-rocketed, and health issues such as autism, digestive problems and reproductive disorders are on the rise. Animal testing with GMOs has resulted in cases of organ failure, digestive disorders, infertility and accelerated aging. Despite an announcement in 2012 by the American Medical Association stating they saw no reason for labeling genetically modified foods, the American Academy of Environmental Medicine has urged doctors to prescribe non-GMO diets for their patients.

The author begins with an assumption of causation from correlation. The increase in food allergies actually does not correlate well with the introduction of GMOs. The correlation between organic food and autism is much more impressive. In fact, the organic food industry has been rising steadily over this same time period, and so one could make the even stronger point that organic food causes all the listed ills.

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124 responses so far

Feb 23 2015

ADHD Is Real

Published by under Neuroscience

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) has long been a target of those who dislike the very concept of mental disorders. This is partly because the emotional stakes are high – the diagnosis often results in children being treated with stimulants. Opposition to the concept of ADHD also reflects fundamental misunderstandings about medicine.

A recent opinion piece in The Blaze by Matt Walsh reflects this deep misunderstanding and unease with the concept of mental illness.

Throughout the piece he uses the terms “disease” and “disorder” interchangeably, without defining either. The distinction is important, because it relates to how medicine defines diagnostic entities. Not all diagnoses are created equal. I spend a great deal of time teaching medical students to have a sophisticated and nuanced understanding of the labels they will be attaching to their patients.

As with every branch of science, labels are used as placeholders of our understanding of phenomena, and also as a necessary contrivance to allow technical communication among experts, in the scientific literature, and also to the public. In medicine we need labels for certain practical applications, such as documentation, epidemiology, drug indications, reimbursement, and research. Labels are a scientific tool, and they need to be understood to be used properly.

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30 responses so far

Feb 19 2015

Phantom Acupuncture

There are two basic schools of thought when it comes to acupuncture, which is the practice of placing thin needles into alleged acupuncture points in order to have a therapeutic or symptomatic effect. The “traditional” interpretation is that the needles are stimulating a physiological response of some kind at the acupuncture points. Within this school there is a range of opinions as to whether this response is due to a biochemical, neurological, or another known biological response or whether it is due to the still more traditional (but actually less than a century old) belief that the needles are manipulating the life force or Qi.

The other school holds that acupuncture is essentially an elaborate placebo. (Note – this article contains all the references necessary to support my statements below, so I will not repeat them.) Any apparent response is a non-specific response to the attention of the practitioner, expectation, distraction from pain, simple regression to the mean, and other illusory effects.

Each school makes different predictions about the various lines of evidence that can be brought to bear to resolve this question. There have been in total several thousand clinical studies looking at the apparent effects of acupuncture. These have failed to convincingly reject the null hypothesis, meaning that they have not demonstrated a clear biological response to acupuncture for any indication. The better controlled studies consistently show that needle location does not matter (sham acupuncture), and that needle insertion does not matter (placebo acupuncture). You can literally have a non-acupuncturist randomly poke someone with toothpicks and get the same response as the full acupuncture treatment.

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194 responses so far

Feb 17 2015

Anderson Cooper Takes Down Dan Burton

Published by under Skepticism

I criticize bad, biased, and or just lazy science journalism frequently, and so it’s a pleasure to occasionally have the opportunity to praise good journalism. This recent interview of Dan Burton by Anderson Cooper could be a template for how to conduct an interview over a scientific issue.

Dan Burton is a former Republican Congressman who has a long history of being anti-vaccine. He likes to repeat anti-vaccine tropes, and does so with the clueless persistence of a seasoned politician with an agenda.

Anderson Cooper is one of the few American journalists who has demonstrated his ability to do a tough and probing interview – you know, actual journalism. He demonstrated his chops again here. Specifically:

He was clearly prepped for the interview. He did his research, understood the issues, and was able to challenge Burton on specific points. You can’t go into an interview like this cold, or with only a superficial understanding of the issue. You have to know what the other person is going to say and how to respond.

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12 responses so far

Feb 16 2015

New Caveatus Emptora Superfood Medicinal Supplement

About once a week I get a question about a specific supplement, often new but sometimes a supplement that has been around for a while. The questioner wants to know if there is any value to the product. I suspect they often already know the answer, but it’s hard to resist the promises being made. I can give a generic answer, an emphatic, “No,” because the marketing of such products is just as generic. You literally can substitute the name of any new supplement you wish to market into the copy.

Snake oil purveyors are looking for the next exotic plant from a tropical location that they can sell as a supplement. It doesn’t matter what it is. Science and evidence do not even enter the equation. They want to know – can they get a supply of it, or even corner the market. If they cannot get enough of the plant it doesn’t matter. They will fill their bottles with wheat, alfalfa, or other fillers. Then they put it in a bottle, plug in the standard claims, do a little marketing, and rake in the millions. That’s it. Sometimes they deliberately adulterate their supplement with actual drugs, especially if they are for weight loss or erectile dysfunction.

Does the new exotic supplement from Gondwanaland, Caveatus Emptora, really work? No! It’s a scam. Save your money.

There are a few standard types of these scams. Here is the most recent miracle supplement about which I was asked, but I will swap out the name so as not to give it the slightest additional exposure.

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13 responses so far

Feb 13 2015

Darwin Was Not Wrong Day

Yesterday was February 12th, the birthday of Charles Darwin, who introduced (along with Alfred Wallace) the theory of evolution to the world. Darwin remains one of the most famous scientists to have ever lived, and his life’s work was truly a staggering accomplishment.

There has been an increasing movement to make February 12th Darwin Day in recognition of this great scientist and his work. Skeptics and secularists have been celebrating it for years. Last month Delaware governor Jack Markell declared February 12th Darwin Day for his state. In the US Congress, Representative Jim Himes (D-Connecticut) has sponsored a bill to make February 12th Darwin Day. This will probably die in committee, like previous similar resolutions, but at least someone is trying.

Creationists, predictably, are not happy. Ken Ham want February 12th to be declared, “Darwin was wrong day.” This, of course, is nothing new, but is an opportunity to reveal the thought process of some creationists. Some creationists like to pretend they reject evolution because they disagree with the science. This is transparently not true – the reject evolution because of their religious faith, and then just backfill whatever justifications they can manufacture with motivated reasoning.

Ham reveals this to be the case when he writes:

But those who promote Charles Darwin Day are really promoting an anti-God religion. The evolutionary worldview is an attempt to explain the universe and life without God. It’s a religion of naturalism and atheism. Sadly, many Christians buy into this religion and simply squeeze God into the gaps somewhere. By doing this, it is really no different than the Israelites who adopted the idolatry of the pagan nations and added it to their religious system.

He is against even attempting to explain the world without God. This, of course, denies the world view of anyone who does not share his particular faith.

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71 responses so far

Feb 12 2015

Scott Adams on Science and Nutrition

In a recent blog post, Dilbert writer Scott Adams wrote:

What’s is science’s biggest fail of all time?

I nominate everything about diet and fitness.

Maybe science has the diet and fitness stuff mostly right by now. I hope so. But I thought the same thing twenty years ago and I was wrong.

From there he goes on what can charitably be called a rant against science, arguing that the public is justified in not trusting the findings of science because science has been wrong before. Adams’ criticisms, however, are based largely in his own misunderstanding of science.

He makes two major errors in his analysis. The first is to confuse mainstream media reporting of science with the science itself. The second is to have an incorrect image of how science progresses over time.

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45 responses so far

Feb 10 2015

Regulating Supplements

While I try to stick in these articles to science and critical thinking, and try to minimize any expression of my personal ideology or political opinion, I make no secret of the fact that I support fair and effective government regulation of all aspects of healthcare. This is partly because I feel the evidence strongly supports this position, but also I am a physician so it is my additional duty to advocate for the health of my patients and society.

The inadequate regulation of the supplement industry has recently been in the news and possibly (hopefully) this issue is coming to a head, perhaps sufficiently to garner the political will to revise current regulations.

First let me point out that I consider the pharmaceutical industry and the supplement industry to be essentially the same thing, the only real difference being the different rules for their regulation. They are different regulatory categories, but the companies making drugs and supplements have significant overlap. Further, the market forces are largely the same, the major difference being that for non-over-the-counter drugs a doctor’s prescription is needed.

I am often accused by defenders of supplements, homeopathy, and “natural” medicine of favoring the pharmaceutical industry, or at least giving them a pass. This is simply not true. I favor strong regulation of the pharmaceutical industry. I have specifically advocated reforms, such as registering clinical trials so drug companies cannot hide data. I favor recent reforms limiting conflicts of interest between physicians and pharmaceutical companies, and the full disclosure of any potential conflicts when they occur. I am against pharmaceutical industry practices, such as ghost authoring white papers to promote their products. There have been numerous multi-billion dollar settlements for pharmaceutical companies breaking the rules that govern the marketing of their products.

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11 responses so far

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