Archive for the 'Science and Medicine' Category

Feb 28 2014

More Yoga Mat Hysteria

The “yoga mat chemical” (azodicarbonamide) is the latest food-based fearmongering, thanks to an unscientific petition by the self-described “food babe,” who apparently feels that she is qualified because she is a computer scientist. (Well, it has the word “science” in it.)

Unfortunately, the “yoga mat chemical” is an effective meme. Who wants to eat something that can be found in a yoga mat? Many journalists, such as Lindsay Abrams, have bought into the meme without any critical analysis. Abrams helpfully provides a list to her readers of “500 more foods containing the yoga mat chemical.”

Here are some other foods her readers might also want to reconsider:

This popular health food can also be found in industrial lubricants, solvents, cleaners, paints, inks adhesives and hydraulic fluid. It is burned as fuel. It is also used to make foam found in, “coolers, refrigerators, automotive interiors and even footwear.” It is used to make carpet backing and insulation.

But the worst part is – it is also used to make yoga mats.

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103 responses so far

Feb 27 2014

Warning Labels on Cell Phones

Hawaii Senate Bill 2571, which is making its way through the legislature, would require that a large non-removable warning label be attached to the back of every cell phone. Originally the warning label was to read, “This device emits electromagnetic radiation, exposure to which may cause brain cancer. Users, especially children and pregnant women, should keep this device away from the head and body.” A revised version of the bill, however, changed the warning to, “To reduce exposure to radiation that may be hazardous to your health, please follow the enclosed product safety guidelines.”

This seems like an example of clear nanny-state overreach, but worse it is not based on science. According to reports every expert consulted by the relevant committees argued against the measure, but the legislators passed it anyway. The measure has one more committee to get through, and then it would go to the House for a vote.

As I have written before (see also here and here) there is no clear link between cell phone use and brain cancer. The plausibility of a link is low but not zero. Non-ionizing radiation is not energetic enough to break chemical bonds, and therefore should not cause DNA damage that could lead to cancer. However, an alternate physical mechanism cannot be ruled out, and biology is complicated, so I don’t think we can rule out a possible connection on theoretical grounds alone. We can just say it’s unlikely.

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16 responses so far

Feb 14 2014

Eating Yoga Mats

This is the worst example of pseudoscientific fearmongering I have seen in a while, and that’s saying something.

Vani Hari, a blogger known as “food babe,” has started a petition to get Subway to remove use of the chemical azodicarbonamide from their breads. She writes:

Azodicarbonamide is the same chemical used to make yoga mats, shoe soles, and other rubbery objects. It’s not supposed to be food or even eaten for that matter. And it’s definitely not “fresh”.

This, of course, is utter nonsense – that is, the notion that because a chemical has multiple uses, included in non-food items, that it is not “supposed” to be eaten. Azodicarbonamide (ADA) is used as a blowing agent in the formation of certain rubbers and sealants. It is used, for example, in sealing the tops of baby food containers, but also in the production of certain plastics and rubbers. It is also used as a bleaching agent for bread, giving it a softer and fluffier quality. None of this says anything about it’s safety at the levels used.

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50 responses so far

Feb 10 2014

Anti-Flu Vaccine Rants at the HuffPo

The Huffington Post continues to be a venue for all sorts of pseudoscience, alternative medicine propaganda, and anti-vaccine sentiments. Two recent posts by Lawrence Solomon in the HuffPo Canada indicate that the nonsense is international.

His first article claims that the majority of health care workers “resist” or “refuse” the flu-vaccine – therefore it can’t be that great. The second attacks the CDC estimates for the number of flu-associated deaths. Together they demonstrate how a bit of motivated reasoning can seem like actual journalism when in fact it leads to misinformation.

Solomon cites statistics about low rates of flu-vaccine update among healthcare workers:

In the UK, only 46 per cent of health care workers — slightly less for doctors (45 per cent) and nurses (41 per cent) — are vaccinated for the flu, despite concerted government efforts according to Public Health England. This startling failure is similar to that seen in Canadian jurisdictions for health care workers today, and those seen in the recent past in the U.S.

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11 responses so far

Feb 06 2014

Fructose vs Glucose

Health conscious individuals have been systematically informed about how important nutrition is to health. This is no doubt true, nutrition is very important. But the nutrition industry, and “natural” health gurus selling vitamins would like you to think that “nutrition is everything,” (in quotes because I have been told that phrase more than once).

Nutrition is important, but it is only one factor among many affecting health. It is not the cause of all problems, and therefore it is not the solution to all health issues.

The overhyping of nutrition, however, creates an obsession with endlessly tweaking one’s diet in the hopes that the perfect combination of “superfoods” will cure all ills and optimize health. The unstated major premise of such claims is that our bodies perform best within very narrow nutritional parameters. It is closer to reality, rather, that our bodies are resilient to a fairly broad range of nutritional parameters. It is helpful to get the broad brushstrokes correct (do not overconsume calories, have a varied diet, etc.), but obsessing over tiny details is likely to be a waste of time.

In the middle of all this is also the ever-present naturalistic fallacy.

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22 responses so far

Feb 03 2014

Sharks Eat Life Caps

Mark Cuban is generally known as the skeptic on the popular show, Shark Tank. In the show, investors hear pitches from inventors looking to sell part of their company for investment capital. On a recent episode the sharks were pitched a product known as “Life Caps.”

The product website declares:

LifeCaps is the ultimate solution when food is not an option. Great tasting and simple, you can take LifeCaps with you everywhere you go.

LifeCaps contains the perfect amount of nutrients that work together with our proprietary micro-particulate blend to create a metabolic trigger. This allows your brain and vital organs to utilize the sugars, proteins and carbohydrates that are stored within body fat for energy.


LifeCaps is bioavailable with the vitamins and nutrients that are essential on a daily basis for intake. Through the Krebs Cycle of the metabolization of the body, it absorbs in to the bloodstream within 20-25 minutes of ingestion. Once absorbed, LifeCaps is designed to maintain efficiency for approximately 240-280 minutes (depending on the individual and their circumstances).

In other words, LifeCaps is a multivitamin. It also contains the herb, hoodia, as an appetite suppressant (which I will get to below), but otherwise it is a multivitamin. This is the result of the lax regulations in the US – you can sell a vitamin pill with all kinds of claims and implied claims, say that it’s “scientifically formulated” and market it toward a specific use – when the pill is just vitamins.

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13 responses so far

Jan 31 2014

Death Rate for Home Births

A new study publishes data from The Midwives Alliance of North America Statistics Project, 2004 to 2009. It is being presented as evidence for the safety of homebirths. The authors conclude:

“For this large cohort of women who planned midwife-led home births in the United States, outcomes are congruent with the best available data from population-based, observational studies that evaluated outcomes by intended place of birth and perinatal risk factors. Low-risk women in this cohort experienced high rates of physiologic birth and low rates of intervention without an increase in adverse outcomes.”

Unless, of course, you consider death an adverse outcome.

Their data show that the death rate for birth and up to six weeks following birth was 2.06 per 1000 overall (excluding fatal congenital anomalies), and 1.61 for low risk births. Amy Tuteur (the Skeptical OB) calculates from the CDC database that the same statistics for planned hospital births are 0.38 per 1000 for low risk births. That’s 4.2 x higher.

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14 responses so far

Jan 28 2014

Occam’s Razor vs Hickam’s Dictum

Every year since 1998 Edge magazine asks a large group of public intellectuals a provocative question and then publishes their answers. This year the question is: What Scientific Idea is Ready for Retirement?

Gerald Smallberg (Practicing Neurologist, New York City; Playwright, Off-Off Broadway Productions, Charter Members; The Gold Ring) gave as his answer, “The clinician’s law of parsimony.” He writes:

“As an absolute, the Law of Parsimony is floundering. Not because it is aging poorly, but rather because it is being challenged more and more by the complexity of the real world and its need for a valid counterweight. From my vantage point as a physician in the practice of clinical neurology, its usefulness, which has always been a guiding principle for me, can easily lead to blind spots and errors in judgment when rigidly followed.”

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56 responses so far

Jan 27 2014

Sucralose Fearmongering

It is easier to scare than reassure. We seem to be programmed for fear – fear of the unknown, of the “unnatural,” of things over which we have little control. Humans are what psychologists call “risk averse.” While the precautionary principle is fine, as far as it goes, risk averse decision-making can often lead to irrational decisions that are not in our best interest.

Food is a particular fear trigger because we also have the evolved emotion of disgust – a negative emotional reaction to the idea of exposure to or ingestion of contaminated or foul substances. The protective effects of this emotion are obvious, but it is a crude indicator rather than a precise toxicological detector.

Artificial sweeteners are a popular topic for stoking fears about what we eat. Aspartame has been a common target over the years, based on misinformation and distortion of the evidence.  More recently sucralose has been the target. Perhaps it’s because they have the word “artificial” right in the name. The industry uses the term “non-nutritive sweeteners” but this has not caught on in popular use.

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24 responses so far

Jan 16 2014

Blood Type Diet – Disproved

Skeptics often confront various challenging situations. One is sophisticated spurious knowledge (or SSK – OK, I just made that up). These are elaborate systems that purport to describe some body of knowledge but which are ultimately based on nothing – they are completely disconnected from reality.

Astrology is a great example of this. There are several astrological systems that are very complex, include charts and diagrams, and follow a certain internal paradigm or logic and underlying philosophy. None of this prevents astrology from being 100% fantasy. There is no relationship between the positions of the planets and stars and the personalities or fates of humans, and no mechanism by which such a relationship might exist.

The problems with systems of SSK is that they can give the powerful illusion of real knowledge. Further, people can become highly invested (in many ways) in such systems making it difficult to abandon them. They can even become institutionalized.

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26 responses so far

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