Archive for the 'Science and the Media' Category

Dec 19 2014

Universal Medicine Uses Google To Silence Critics

An Australian based company called Universal Medicine (UM) has been criticized by various skeptical blogs and groups as being a new age alternative medicine cult. Looking through their website, this seems like a reasonable observation. (The term “cult” is fuzzy, but many of the features seem to be present.)

In response to this criticism, UM has apparently issued many complaints to Google, claiming defamation. According to the site Chilling Effect, Google has responded at least in some cases by removing the sites from Google searches, effectively censoring those websites.

Doubtful News was one of the sites censored by Google.

This type of action represents a serious threat to the skeptical mission. Part of that mission is consumer protection, and the primary method of activism is public analysis and criticism of dubious claims, products, services, and organizations. Essentially, we expose charlatans.

Charlatans, it turns out, don’t like to be exposed. They don’t like bad press.

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Nov 18 2014

Perception vs Facts

I was recently in a conversation with someone about the alleged threat that Muslims present to Western societies. I made the point that not all Muslims are radicals, and it’s not valid to condemn the entire group based upon the actions of their most radical members. They countered that “90%” of Muslims were radicals.

Obviously, they made this figure up on the spot for rhetorical effect. But this was their perception, shaped, very likely, by the type of news they generally consume.

In addition to the biasing effect that media can have on our perceptions of reality, there is a day-to-day subtle confirmation bias that colors our perceptions. It is very true that “believing is seeing” – we tend to notice, remember, and accept observations that seem to confirm (or can be interpreted to confirm) our internal model of reality. We tend to ignore or (more often) dismiss observations that seem to contradict our internal narrative. They are reinterpreted, or treated as “exceptions” (assuming the rule to which this new evidence would be an exception).

The good news is that today we have rapid access to objective factual information like never before. I love whipping out my smartphone and fact-checking in the middle of a conversation. This access to information should also have a humbling effect, and should motivate people to question the “facts” that they have rattling around in their brains. Don’t trust anything unless you have a recent and reliable reference.

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Sep 30 2014

Dr. Oz, Autism, and GMOs

It is no longer news that Dr. Oz has long ago abandoned any pretense to scientific rigor and is simply another scaremongering hawker of snake oil and nonsense. Still, it’s hard not to marvel when he sinks to a new low.

On a recent show Oz’s target was genetically modified organisms (GMO). This is not new for Oz, he has hosted anti-GMO activists in the past, warning his audience about non-existent health risks.

This time around Oz and his guest are claiming that pesticides used with certain GMO varieties may cause autism. Why is it always autism? It’s likely at least partly due to the fact that awareness of autism has been increasing in the last 2 decades, creating the false impression that autism itself is increasing. This leads to numerous false correlations (most famously with vaccines) and the assumption of cause and effect (often to support a preexisting bias). As you can see from the graph, however, the rise in autism diagnoses tightly correlates with increased organic food sales – but I guess you have to cherry pick the correlation you want.

The narrative that Oz spun for his audience was this: GMO is tied to pesticide use. Those pesticides are hazardous to your health, and specifically might cause autism. Organic food is pesticide free, and going organic can actually cure autism.

Every link in that chain of argument is misleading or patently wrong.

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Sep 08 2014

Internet Echochambers

I recently came across a post on the skeptic subreddit pointing to the rules of the 9/11 truther subreddit:

Welcome to 911truth! The purpose of this subreddit is to present and discuss evidence showing that the US Government’s version of the events of 9/11 cannot possibly be true. Submissions or comments supporting the official version, including links to sites purporting to “debunk” the 9/11 Truth Movement (depending on context), are considered off-topic here.

Rules:

  1. Stay on topic. Off topic comments are subject to removal.

Rule #7 also made me smile:

7. No caps lock.

This is the double-edged sword of the internet – it allows for unprecedented on-demand access to incredible information, but that information is biased.

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Aug 26 2014

Scientific Literacy

I was recently interviewed for an article on Medical News Today by David McNamee regarding Why is scientific literacy among the general population important? The topic, of course, is very important to me, as I have spent a great deal of my time attempting to promote scientific literacy generally, with an emphasis on medical science since that is my specialty.

Carl Sagan articulated the basic issue well (of course) – to paraphrase, we live in a civilization increasingly dominated by science and technology, and with a populace less and less able to understand current science and technology. This is a recipe for disaster.

There are many examples that should be readily accessible to regular readers of this or other science blogs: are vaccines safe and effective, how much of our resources should we invest in reducing carbon emissions, are GMOs safe and are they a benefit or risk to the environment, should we put fluoride in public water supplies, how should alternative medical treatments be regulated and how should we invest further in clinical trials of their efficacy?

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Aug 15 2014

Bad Reporting About Epigenetics

Brad Crouch should be fired. At the very least he should never write a science news article again (well, maybe after remedial education and appropriate penance). At first I thought perhaps he was a general or fluff journalist taken off the dog show beat and asked to cover a science news item, but his byline for The Advertiser (an Australian news outlet) says he is a “medical reporter.” That’s frightening.

I read a lot of bad science news reporting, but rarely does a reporter so thoroughly misrepresent the actual science news – unless there is an obvious ideological agenda, but as far as I can tell this is just pure incompetence.

He is reporting on a review article on epigenetics recently published in Science. The two articles have very little in common, and it’s difficult to see how Crouch arrived at his story other than just making shit up. He begins:

LANDMARK Adelaide research showing that sperm and eggs appear to carry genetic memories of events well before conception, may force a rethink of the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin, scientists say.

First, the paper is not research, let alone “landmark” research. It is a review article. It’s not even a systematic review or a meta-analysis, which a reporter might be forgiven for calling a “study” – it’s just a discussion of the topic of epigenetics.

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Apr 14 2014

Navy Process to Make Fuel from Seawater

Researchers at the US Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) announced that they have successfully tested a process to convert seawater into jet fuel. They can extract CO2 both dissolved and bound from the water as a source of carbon, and can extract H2 through electrolysis. They then convert the CO2 and hydrogen into long chain hydrocarbons:

NRL has made significant advances in the development of a gas-to-liquids (GTL) synthesis process to convert CO2 and H2 from seawater to a fuel-like fraction of C9-C16 molecules. In the first patented step, an iron-based catalyst has been developed that can achieve CO2 conversion levels up to 60 percent and decrease unwanted methane production in favor of longer-chain unsaturated hydrocarbons (olefins). These value-added hydrocarbons from this process serve as building blocks for the production of industrial chemicals and designer fuels.

They claim that with this process they can mass produce jet fuel for $3-6 per gallon. They tested the fuel on a model airplane, and it appeared to work fine.

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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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Jun 10 2013

Science Journalism

I recently got into a small kerfuffle with a journalist, actually a sports writer who decided to dabble in science journalism. The exchange started at science-based medicine when I wrote a piece critical of the claims being made for a new device called the GyroStim, which is being offered as a treatment for brain injury.

In this article I linked to a piece in the popular press about the treatment, in the Denver Post by a sports writer, Adrian Dater. Dater thought I was being unfair in my criticism of his piece, and so wrote a response on his blog.  The exchange and the comments have exposed many of the problems with journalism in general and science journalism in particular, that I would like to explore further here.

First I have to say that there are many excellent journalists and science journalists out there. I am not implying that that there are no good journalists. I do find, however, that the baseline quality of science journalism is lacking and, if anything, getting worse. Part of the problem is the evaporating infrastructure for full-time journalists. Many outlets no longer maintain specialist journalists, and use generalists (including editors) to cover science news stories.

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Mar 19 2013

Evolved to Gamble

It is tempting to make arguments about how and why particular aspects of human psychology evolved. I will not be getting into an evolutionary psychology discussion in this post, I will just say I find such arguments offer a plausible framework for understanding human psychology, regardless of whether you think they can be scientifically tested.

A recent example is a paper by researchers at McMaster University. The title of their press release  reads: It’s in the cards: Human evolution influences gamblers’ decisions, study shows. 

The study actually says nothing about human evolution. It simply demonstrates an aspect of human behavior – the evolutionary explanation is pure speculation, not tested or demonstrated in the study itself.

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