Jul 15 2014

BBC Fail on Acupuncture Documentary

Alternative Medicine’s best friend, and in my opinion largely responsible for what popularity it has, is a gullible media. I had thought we were turning a corner, and the press were over the gushing maximally clueless approach to CAM, and were starting to at least ask some probing questions (like, you know, does it actually work), but a 2006 BBC documentary inspires a more pessimistic view.

The documentary is part of a BBC series hosted by Kathy Sykes: Alternative Medicine, The Evidence. This episode is on acupuncture. The episode is from 2006, but was just posted on YouTube as a “2014 documentary.” Unfortunately, old news frequently has a second life on social media.

First, let me point out that Sykes is a scientist (a fact she quickly points out). She is a physicist, which means that she has the credibility of being able to say she is a scientist but has absolutely no medical training. It’s the worst case scenario – she brings the credibility of being a scientist, and probably thinks that her background prepares her to make her own judgments about the evidence, and yet clearly should have relied more on real experts.

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Jul 07 2014

9/11 Conspiracy Debate – Part IV

This is the final installment of a four part written debate between myself and Michael Fullerton, who believes that the collapse of the Twin Towers on 9/11 was not due to the official story of damage from the impact of commercial jets, but rather the result of a controlled demolition. His initial post is here. My first response is here. Michael’s rebuttal is here.

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Part IV: Rebuttal to Michael Fullerton

by Steven Novella

I was disappointed to read Michael’s rebuttal last week, as we had agreed to a respectful exchange, but Michael apparently felt the need for juvenile insults of not only me but my readers. I also found it difficult to follow his logic, and specifically to understand what his position actually is.

In this rebuttal I must speculate to some extent about what it is, exactly, that Michael claims happened to the WTC 1 and 2 on 9/11. Other than that controlled demolition was used, he has not presented a coherent narrative for what took place.

He has also completely failed to address my actual position. Instead he has relied upon trumped up fallacies and attacking straw men of his own imaginings.

I will first lay out again my position and the supporting evidence. I will then address what I infer to be Michael’s position, or address his possible positions. He is welcome to correct any errors in the comments by clarifying what it is he claims occurred.

There are two components to the collapse of the towers that we can discuss: the first is the initiation of each collapse, and the second is the subsequent complete collapse of the towers down to the ground. At no point does Michael directly address the initiation of collapse, but neither does he explicitly concede my position. What is incontestable is that commercial jets fully loaded with fuel struck each of the towers in a deliberate act of terrorism. The jets damaged outer supports at the site of impact, the jet fuel exploded, and the buildings caught fire.

There is compelling evidence that the initial damage combined with weakening of the steel columns from the heat of the fires caused the floors at that level to sag, pulling in the outer walls until they were no longer able to bear the load, initiating collapse. It is most obvious in the South Tower that the outer columns failed on one side, causing the top portion of the building to fall to that side, distributing extra load to the remaining columns until they failed, resulting in the collapse of that level.

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Jul 03 2014

Vaccine Safety Systematic Review

A new systematic review of adverse events from vaccines used in the US was recently published in the journal Pediatrics: Safety of Vaccines Used for Routine Immunization of US Children: A Systematic Review. (Full text pdf) This systematic review is actually an update and expansion to the 2011 Institute of Medicine (IOM) report on vaccine side effects.

The review looked at the best evidence available, active surveillance studies with controls, identifying 67 relevant studies. Overall they found that vaccines were very safe. There were a few associations with serious adverse events, but these were all very rare. From their conclusions:

Our findings may allay some patient, caregiver, and health care provider concerns. Strength of evidence is high that MMR vaccine is not associated with the onset of autism in children; this conclusion supports findings of all previous reviews on the topic. There is also high-strength evidence that MMR, DTaP, Td, Hib, and hepatitis B vaccines are not associated with childhood leukemia.

Evidence was found for an association of several serious AEs with vaccines; however, these events were extremely rare: absolute risk is low. For example, strength of evidence is moderate for association of vaccines against rotavirus with intussusception. Although 1 large US epidemiologic study found no association, a recent analysis of the US PRISM program found both RotaTeq and Rotarix associated with intussusception in the short term. Estimated rates were 1.1 to 1.5 cases per 100 000 doses of RotaTeq and 5.1 cases per 100 000 doses of Rotarix.

So a few vaccines are associated with rare AEs. Given the rhetoric of the anti-vaccine movement, there are a few points worth emphasizing here.

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Jul 01 2014

Distribution of UFO Sightings

Scientists often take an epidemiological approach to a phenomenon to discover clues about its cause and nature. This is not limited to medical diseases, the basic concept can apply to any episodic event.

Take UFO sightings – the phenomenon in question is people reporting that they saw something unidentified in the sky. We can generate some basic hypotheses about factors that might influence UFO sightings: the presence of objects to be observed, viewing conditions, number of people available to make observations, and priming (the idea of UFOs in the culture, say following a movie about UFOs or a case reported in the media).

As reported by The Economist, the National UFO Reporting Center has released statistics on UFO sightings by state and by time of day. The Economist has conveniently placed this data in an infographic, depicted above. They helpfully labeled the three periods of the day as working hours, drinking hours, and sleeping hours. As you can see, UFO reports peak during the drinking hours.

I am going to assume the article is tongue-in-cheek, but it is being spread around social media, sometimes in a manner that seems credulous.

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Jun 30 2014

9/11 Conspiracy Debate – Part III

This is the third of a four part written debate between myself and Michael Fullerton, who believes that the collapse of the Twin Towers on 9/11 was not due to the official story of damage from the impact of commercial jets, but rather the result of a controlled demolition. His initial post is here. My first response is here. Next week I will give my final rebuttal.
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Part III: Rebuttal to Steven Novella

by Michael Fullerton

Dr. Novella’s response to my initial arguments consists mainly of the weak arguments I had already dispensed with in Part I. He claims an initial event is evidence for a following event (post hoc ergo propter hoc); he claims I provided no evidence for controlled demolition (CD); he claims CD requires explosions and he claims that I claimed that a scientific explanation requires precedence. It’s as if he completely ignored parts of my writing that conflicted with his beliefs. He keeps repeating these false arguments because he has nothing else of any significance to offer.

Novella states that he accepts “the consensus of expert opinion that the collapse of the towers was due to the structural damage and weakening of the steel supports caused by the impact of the jets, the burning of the jet fuel, and the subsequent fires that burned through the buildings.” In science, a consensus opinion means that the majority of people in the field agree with a particular explanation for a phenomena. How has Novella determined consensus? He provided no evidence of consensus just the NIST report and a statement from 25 ASCE civil engineers. No poll has been conducted to provide evidence to support this statement. The fact that 2200+ architects and engineers question the official 9/11 story[1] seems to throw cold water on this “consensus”.

Note that Novella’s consensus argument is precariously close to committing two fallacies here: appeal to the masses (AKA appeal to consensus) and appeal to authority. The appeal to the masses fallacy occurs whenever a conclusion is deemed true because the majority of a particular group believe it is true. The appeal to authority occurs whenever a conclusion is deemed true simply because one or more experts believe it is true. Claiming therefore that something is true because a majority of experts in the field believe it is true is a false argument. In fact, even using a consensus argument to claim one explanation is more likely than another is baseless. We know this because countless times in the history of science, the consensus has often been very wrong. Since Novella is hinting that the explanation is more likely rather than that it is true, I’m not going to call it fallacious even though it could easily be argued as such.

Novella falsely claims that I dismiss the official story evidence for collapse initiation. I don’t dismiss it. I am merely saying it does not in any way constitute evidence for the rest of the collapse. Bizarrely, Novella actually claims that evidence for collapse initiation of the Twin Towers is evidence of how they fell. As I stated in Part I, arguing that a preceding event caused a following event involves the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. He does not deny that it is a logical fallacy or explain how a fallacy could in any way constitute evidence. Let me give an example. Suppose an airline pilot describes icing conditions on the wings and windshield. Shortly thereafter the plane crashes killing all on board. Without investigating further, experts proclaim that these icing conditions resulted in the crash. Later, eyewitnesses come forward reporting that they saw an explosion right before the plane came down. This evidence was rejected because it went against the expert consensus. After much pressure by the victim’s family members, the eyewitnesses and other concerned people, an investigation was finally conducted which found a missile strike actually caused the fall. As we see, evidence of a preceding event is not necessarily evidence for a following event. Novella would be one of those that believed the icing was evidence for the crash. So once again, no evidence whatsoever is provided for the actual falls of the towers. The only “evidence” he has for the official story is a logical fallacy, a false argument! The official story believers and CD denialists really need to wrap their heads around this.

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Jun 27 2014

Seralini GMO Study Republished

I don’t recall this ever happening before. It probably has, but if so, it’s rare enough that I have never heard about it. The strange odyssey of the paper, Long term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize, by Seralini et. al., just got stranger.

The paper was published in 2012 in Food and Chemical Toxicity. It was greeted with intense criticism from the scientific community for its many shortcomings, culminating in the journal retracting the study. Now the study has been republished by a new open access journal, Environmental Sciences Europe.

The GMOSeralini website is celebrating the republication, writing:

“Now the study has passed a third peer review arranged by the journal that is republishing the study, Environmental Sciences Europe.”

They also claim the the article was retracted because of pressure from pro-GMO lobbying.

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Jun 26 2014

Pesticides and Autism

A study has been making the rounds on social media claiming an association between prenatal exposure to pesticides and the risk of autism and developmental delay. This means that I am getting asked by many people what the study actually shows. Spoiler alert – not much. But let’s break it down.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurological disorder involving brain development resulting in decreased communications among neurons in the brain and characterized by reduced social ability. Our current scientific understanding is that ASD is largely a genetic disorder. While environmental factors cannot be ruled out, it seems that genes are the primary factor. It’s reasonable to search for environmental risk factors, but so far none have been clearly established.

Those who feel there likely is an environmental factor also tend to believe that there is an autism epidemic – that the incidence of autism is increasing in a way that is not easily explained by genetics, and therefore suggests and environmental factor. While it is uncontroversial that the number of ASD diagnoses has been increasing over the last two decades, this does not necessarily mean that the true incidence of ASD has been increasing.

The evidence actually shows that diagnostic substitution, broadening of the definition of ASD, and increased surveillance account for much of the increased recorded incidence. It’s possible that changes in diagnostic behavior entirely accounts for the apparent increase. It’s also possible that a subset is due to a true increase, but that has not been clearly established.

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Jun 24 2014

Small Energy

Energy is what makes stuff happen. The ability to generate energy in useful amounts and locations is key to our civilization. Often when discussing energy we are focusing on big energy, how to make large amounts of energy in a cost-effective manner with minimal negative impact on our environment.

The ability to generate tiny amounts of energy is also useful, however. One particular application requiring a small but reliable source of energy is implantable devices, such as cardiac pacemakers. Right now pacemakers are run by small batteries. These batteries have a limited lifespan, and need to be surgically replaced.

What if, however, we could generate the required electrical energy from the body itself. Our bodies use a relative large amount of energy, creating movement, electrical signals, generating heat, assembling proteins and cells, and undergoing biochemical reactions. All we would need to do is tap into a tiny slice of this energy and there would be enough energy to power a pacemaker, or many other small implantable devices.

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Jun 23 2014

9/11 Conspiracy Debate – Part II

This is the second of a four part written debate between myself and Michael Fullerton, who believes that the collapse of the Twin Towers on 9/11 was not due to the official story of damage from the impact of commercial jets, but rather the result of a controlled demolition. His initial post is here. This is my first response. Another round will follow in the next two weeks.
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Part II – The Collapse of the Twin Towers was the Result of the Commercial Jet Impacts

by Steven Novella

When Michael first contacted me he challenged me (as he apparently has other skeptics before me) to a live debate on the topic of the collapse of WTC1 and WTC2 on Septermber 11, 2001. I offered instead this written debate, as I feel the written format is better suited to a technical debate, where references and facts can be checked.

Let me begin my first response by reviewing what appears to be the common ground between our two positions. Michael and I both agree that commercial airliners struck each of the Twin Towers on 9/11, resulting in explosions, burning jet fuel, and structural damage to the towers. We also agree that some time following these impacts, each tower collapsed.

We disagree on the best scientific explanation for these collapses. Michael supports the controlled demolition hypothesis. I accept the consensus of expert opinion that the collapse of the towers was due to the structural damage and weakening of the steel supports caused by the impact of the jets, the burning of the jet fuel, and the subsequent fires that burned through the buildings.

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Jun 20 2014

Inflation Evidence Questioned

Published by under Astronomy
Comments: 4

A critical part of skeptical outreach is teaching the public about how science works. Surveys of scientific literacy generally have dismal outcomes, but they also generally focus on knowledge about the findings of science, and not so much on the process of science. My personal experience from engaging with the public in multiple venues over decades is that those who are critical or suspicious of science generally are laboring under a gross misunderstanding of how science operates.

Actually it’s not quite accurate to talk about “science,” and that is not how I think about or evaluate scientific claims. Rather, the global scientific community has a certain culture and norms of acceptable behavior. Each country, however, has their own subculture and may have problems or failings specific to them. China, for example, apparently can only publish positive studies about acupuncture, betraying a national bias that calls into question any acupuncture study originating from that country.

Each scientific discipline also has its own subculture. Some professions and specialties are more rigorous than others. Further, each institution, lab, and researcher has their own culture and behavior.

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