Nov 14 2014

The Seduction of Cancer Quackery

Here’s another instance of the narrative clashing with reality.

I wrote recently about an 11-year-old girl, a member of Canada’s Six Nations community, who has leukemia. Her parents, concerned about the side effects of chemotherapy, would rather treat her with traditional and alternative medicine. They are fighting for their right to do so, and the court seems sympathetic to the rights of the parents to express their cultural identity.

Meanwhile, it seems clear to me that the parents, and more importantly the girl, are simply being victimized by a charlatan, who has nothing to do with their cultural identity.

The seduction, really a con, is fairly straight forward. A seriously ill child is every parent’s worst nightmare, putting them into an extremely vulnerable position. Cancer is especially frightening, and chemotherapy, while it can be effective, is harsh. Leukemia is very treatable, and the girl’s doctors give her a 90-95% chance of being completely cured with a standard course of chemotherapy. However, she will have serious side effects from the chemo, and that is hard for any parent to watch. It can be an emotional dilemma (I think intellectually it’s a no-brainer, but emotionally tough).

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Nov 13 2014

Food Babe Misinformation on Travel

The “Food Babe” is an excellent object lesson in why people who are not qualified should not be dispensing advice to the public. Spouting uninformed opinions is one thing, but presenting information in an authoritative manner as if from an expert should not be attempted by the non-expert.

If you want to dispense useful information on your blog or website (not just opinion) then it is appropriate to cite credible sources and experts and to accurately convey their information. “These are the facts concerning flu vaccines, according to the CDC,” then quote the CDC directly, with a link to the source.

Unfortunately the web is cluttered with people who really have no idea what they are talking about giving advice as if it were authoritative, and often that advice is colored by either an ideological agenda or a commercial interest. The Food Babe is now the poster child for this phenomenon.

She recently published advice for healthy traveling. The page has since been deleted, apparently in response to criticism, but it is cached here. The FB’s advice contains some real howlers, demonstrating that she lacks even the most basic scientific literacy.

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Nov 11 2014

Glenn Beck’s Medical Narrative

Recently Glenn Beck has revealed that he has been struggling with medical issues for the last five years or so. On his show he states:

“Tonight’s show is not for the casual fan or, really, anyone in the press,” Beck said. “This is a one-on-one between friends. No one in the media ever does a show like this, because it is crazy. … But I believe that by not talking with you openly, it destroys everything of real meaning and value — namely, our trust.”

What follows is a common narrative we have heard before. Beck was very sick with a mysterious illness. His symptoms were mainly pain and numbness in the hands and feet, lack of sleep, mental fog, muscle problems, and vocal cord paralysis. He saw many doctors, who were unable to make a definitive diagnosis, while he slowly deteriorated.

Finally he saw a maverick doctor with unconventional treatments. He was able to explain all of Beck’s symptoms, and gave him a comprehensive treatment program which has reversed Beck’s illness. Now Beck is back with a “clean bill of health.”

Even though I am a neurologist and I have my suspicions about what was really going on, I am not going to attempt to diagnose Beck from afar. What I want to discuss is the issue of public figures using their own health to tell a moral narrative. It’s very problematic for several reasons.

The first is that medical stories, especially those involving a complex or difficult-to-diagnose condition, are, well, complex. There are often many nuances to such stories and they are not easily captured with simplistic narratives. For example, it is very difficult to know what Beck’s various physicians were thinking without either talking to them directly or having access to his medical record. Second-hand reports of the what other doctors are thinking are never, in my experience, accurate.

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Nov 10 2014

Feeling of Presence Induced in the Lab

I have investigated a few hauntings and ghostly phenomenon. In reality I was investigating the ghost-hunters who were investigating alleged hauntings. A few patterns quickly emerged. One is that actual sightings and reported events tended to cluster around a few individuals, or even one individual. Another is that such events never occurred when there was a skeptical investigator present.

Also very interesting, however, was that the real interesting stuff did not start happening until the early morning hours, such as 2 or 3 in the morning. Ghost hunters invent lore to explain this phenomenon (the haunting hours), but my hypothesis is that this is the perfect time for sleep deprivation to be taking its toll.

When the evidence for a phenomenon is reported subjective experience, we need to ask if those experiences are being generated by something happening outside the person, or just inside their brain. When the brain is sleep-deprived, it can become glitchy. We can fall asleep briefly without realizing it. We can start to slide into a dream state, and might even experience a fusion of the waking and dream state, even to the point of hallucinations.

One common report is the feeling of presence (FoP) – the sense that there is another entity in the room with us, although we can’t quite see it as it is lurking just at the edge of our vision. I have experienced this myself, during hypnagogic episodes when I am very sleep deprived.

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Nov 07 2014

Solution Aversion and Motivated Reasoning

Anyone paying the slightest attention has likely realized that people tend to hold positions in line with their general world view. In the US, for example, political conservatives tend to hold conservative opinions, while political liberals tend to hold liberal opinions. This is true even when the topic at hand is scientific or factual, and not a matter of value or opinion.

Whether the issue is climate change, GMO, gun control, nuclear power, the death penalty, or biological facts surrounding pregnancy and fetal development, your political ideology is likely to determine your scientific opinions.  Further, depending on how strongly held the political values are, facts are not very helpful in changing opinions. Presenting fact may actually backfire, motivating people to dig in their heels. 

All of this is old news to readers of the skeptical literature. The basic phenomenon at work here is motivated reasoning, which is a catchall covering the suite of biases and cognitive flaws that lead people to arrive at confident conclusions they wish to be true, rather than objectively following facts and logic wherever it leads. Further, as I discussed yesterday, the process of motivated reasoning leads us to a false confidence in our conclusions. We all think we have facts and logic on our side.

A recent paper on the issue defines motivated reasoning this way:

Of importance, recent evidence has demonstrated that political ideology, defined as “an interrelated set of moral and political attitudes that possesses cognitive, affective, and motivational components,” can similarly guide, funnel, and constrain the processing of information and alter behavior.

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Nov 06 2014

Lessons from Dunning-Kruger

In 1999 psychologist David Dunning and his graduate student Justin Kruger published a paper in which they describe what has come to be known (appropriately) as the Dunning-Kruger effect.  In a recent article discussing his now famous paper, Dunning summarizes the effect as:

“…incompetent people do not recognize—scratch that, cannot recognize—just how incompetent they are,”

He further explains:

“What’s curious is that, in many cases, incompetence does not leave people disoriented, perplexed, or cautious. Instead, the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge.”

As you can see in the chart above, the most competent individuals tend to underestimate their relative ability a little, but for most people (the bottom 75%) they increasingly overestimate their ability, and everyone thinks they are above average. I sometimes hear the effect incorrectly described as, “the more incompetent you are, the more knowledgeable you think you are.” As you can see, self-estimates do decrease with decreasing knowledge, but the gap between performance and self-assessment increase as you decrease in performance.

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Nov 04 2014

The Primeval Code

Conspiracy theories, pseudoscientific belief systems, and urban legends are fascinating in that they provide a window into culture and the human psyche. Essentially these are stories that are disconnected from reality, and therefore represent common narratives, beliefs, and fears in the culture.

I recently came across a conspiracy theory I had not heard of before, the Primeval Code, popularized in 2007 by a Swiss journalist, Luc Bürgin. Here’s the story:

Dr. Guido Ebner and Heinz Schürch, scientists working at the time for the pharmaceutical company, Ciba, discovered that if you expose seeds to an electrostatic field their ancient DNA will be awakened. Corn, wheat, even salmon will revert to a more primitive form, as if remembering their prior evolutionary states.

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Nov 03 2014

As I Walk Through the Valley of Death

The term “valley of death” is a colorful (and biblical) reference to the difficulty of bringing scientific advances to the market. Researchers make a discovery in the lab that has a potential practical application. They then create a start up company to translate their discovery into a marketable product or service. The valley of death is the gulf between the lab and a profitable product, a desert that turns out to be too long for many, resulting in funding drying up before the market is reached.

As someone who is interested in science and technology, I have witnessed the valley of death many times from the sidelines. Often, when a scientist makes an interesting discovery, a science journalist reporting on the discovery feels obliged to connect the advance to some practical application. The more this application resembles technology from popular science fiction the better.

I enjoy speculating about future applications as much as anyone, but this practice can become formulaic and mindless. Every discovery about a virus will cure the common cold, every advance in understanding the machinery of cells will cure cancer, and every material science advance will give us hover cars or invisibility cloaks.

Another pattern that has emerged is the “5-10 years” claim, which is how long it will always take for the advance being reported to be translated to the marketplace. Often the scientists themselves are actively involved in the hype and overly optimistic predictions. Someone cynical might interpret “5-10 years” as “one more funding cycle.”

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Oct 31 2014

Brain Size and Intelligence

I was recently asked about the relationship between brain size and intelligence. This is a question I get every now and then, because the relationship is not an obvious one. In this particular case, the questioner was curious about the fact that Neanderthals had a larger cranial capacity on average than modern Homo sapiens.

For the sake of this discussion I am going to avoid a detailed treatment of the concept of “intelligence.” It’s important to note that intelligence is a multifaceted phenomenon, there is no single way to measure it, and it cannot be captured by any single number. Having said that, we can use various markers or measures of cognitive ability to loosely represent overall intelligence. Problem solving, for example, is one measure, and can be used in multiple species. I will come back to this later, for for the sake of this discussion I will be referring to intelligence as overall cognitive ability without getting specific.

Once scientists figured out that the brain is the seat of intelligence, we were quick to observe that humans had relatively large brains. This made sense – humans seem to be, by far, the most intelligent species on the planet, so it makes sense that we have the biggest brains.

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Oct 30 2014

Homeopathy for Ebola

New Zealand Green MP, Steffan Browning, stepped in it recently when he signed a petition asking the World Health Organization (WHO) to develop and distribute homeopathic remedies to end the Ebola epidemic. Unfortunately this is not an Onion article.

Browning later tried to do damage control by stating that his support of the petition was “unwise” and he blamed it partly on it being late at night when he signed it.

Asked whether he thought homeopathy could cure Ebola, Mr Browning said: “It’s not for me to go down that track at all. The World Health Organisation, world health authorities are doing that.”

This is a common political response. Ask a Republican eyeing national office what they think about global warming or evolution and you might get a similar answer. It is a disingenuous dodge to essentially say, “I’ll let the scientists decide.” when they have already decided. It’s simply a way to stake out a neutral position and not piss anyone off.

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