Jul 23 2014

Another Lawsuit To Suppress Legitimate Criticism – This Time SBM

I suppose it was inevitable. In fact, I’m a bit surprised it took this long. SGU Productions, the Society for Science-based medicine, and I are being sued for an article that I wrote in May of 2013 on Science-Based Medicine. My SBM piece, which was inspired by an article in the LA Times, gave this summary:

“The story revolves around Dr. Edward Tobinick and his practice of perispinal etanercept (Enbrel) for a long and apparently growing list of conditions. Enbrel is an FDA-approved drug for the treatment of severe rheumatoid arthritis. It works by inhibiting tumor necrosis factor (TNF), which is a group of cytokines that are part of the immune system and cause cell death. Enbrel, therefore, can be a powerful anti-inflammatory drug. Tobinick is using Enbrel for many off-label indications, one of which is Alzheimer’s disease (the focus of the LA Times story).”

The claims and practice of Dr. Tobinick have many of the red flags of a dubious medical practice, of the sort that we discuss regularly on SBM. It seems that Dr. Tobinick does not appreciate public criticism of his claims and practice, and he wants me to remove the post from SBM. In my opinion he is using legal thuggery in an attempt to intimidate me and silence my free speech because he finds its content inconvenient.

Of course, we have no intention of removing the post as we feel it is critical to the public’s interest. This is what we do at SBM – provide an objective analysis of questionable or controversial medical claims so that consumers can make more informed decisions, and to advance the state of science in medicine.
We also feel it is critical not to cave to this type of intimidation. If we do, we might as well close up shop (which I suspect the Tobinicks of the world would find agreeable). Defending against even a frivolous lawsuit can be quite expensive, but we feel it is necessary for us to fight as hard as we can to defend our rights and the work that we do here at SBM.

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Jul 22 2014

Aliens are Sinners

To paraphrase Carl Sagan: in one unremarkable galaxy among hundreds of billions, there is an unremarkable star among hundreds of billions of stars in that one galaxy. Around that star revolves a world with life. Some people who live on that world believe they are the center of the universe.

Sagan nicely puts into perspective how absurd it is to believe, given our current knowledge of the cosmos, that we are the center of all things, either physically at the literal center, or metaphorically as in, we are the most important things in the universe. This is a childish view, held by our ancestors because they couldn’t know any better. Science, as Stephen Gould noted, is partly a process of smashing pillars of human narcissism. Neither the earth, nor our sun, nor our galaxy are at the center of the universe. The universe, it turns out, has no center. Neither are humans at the pinnacle of the evolutionary tree – we are just one twig, and every other twig has just as much evolutionary history behind it as we do.

Humans are certainly the most encephalized species on the planet, with by far the most advanced culture and technology, so we are special in that sense. Every time, however, scientists believe they have nailed down something that is unique about humans, some researcher finds that chimps (our closest cousins), or even other species, can do it too. We are part of the animal kingdom, part of this physical world, the result of natural processes that seem ubiquitous throughout the universe.

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Jul 21 2014

Moon Hoax Anomaly Hunting

Yesterday, July 20th, was the 45th anniversary of Apollo 11 landing on the surface of the moon, and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin becoming the first and second humans to walk on the surface of another world. This is, to be sure, one of the greatest achievements of the human species.

There are those, however, who claim that we never sent astronauts to the moon, that the entire thing was an elaborate hoax by the US, meant to intimidate our rivals with our spacefaring prowess. As is typical of most grand conspiracy theories, they have no actual evidence to support their claim. None of the many people who would have to have been involved have come forward to confess their involvement. No government documents have come to light, no secret studios have been revealed. There is no footage accidentally revealing stage equipment.

What the moon hoax theorists have is anomaly hunting. This is the process of looking for something – anything – that does not seem to fit or that defies easy explanation, and then declaring it evidence that the standard story if false. Conspiracy theorists then slip in their preferred conspiracy narrative to take its place. Sometimes they are more coy, claiming to be “just asking questions” (also known as jaqing off), but their agenda is clear.

Genuine anomalies are of significant interest to science and any investigation, no question. For an apparent anomaly to be useful, however, mundane explanations need to be vigorously ruled out (conspiracy theorists tend to skip that part). Only when genuine attempts to explain apparent anomalies have failed to provide any plausible explanation should it be considered a true anomaly deserving of attention.

At that point the answer to the anomaly is, “we currently don’t know,” not “it’s a conspiracy.”

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Jul 18 2014

New Organic Farming Meta-analysis – What Does it Really Show?

The Guardian’s headline reads: Clear differences between organic and non-organic food, study finds. While this article was better than most in including some caveats, it was clearly favorable to the conclusions in the study, and failed, in my opinion, to properly put the new study into an informative context.

How does this new study add to the literature looking at the safety and health effect of organic produce vs conventional produce?

First, the study is a meta-analysis of 343 prior studies looking at nutrient content, pesticide, and heavy metal contamination of produce. It is not a collection of any new data. A meta-analysis is very tricky to conduct well – it does not improve the quality of the data going into the analysis, only the statistical power. Further it introduces another layer of potential bias (another researcher degree of freedom) in which studies are chosen for the analysis.

This study used very open criteria, and therefore included more lower-quality studies (likely to be false positive or show the bias of the researchers) than other meta-analyses.

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Jul 17 2014

European Commission Human Brain Project Hubbub

In 2013 the European Commission awarded $1.3 billion to a project to simulate the human brain in a supercomputer. While everyone is excited about this prospect, and welcomes the infusion of cash, recently the project has come under public criticism.

More than 180 neuroscientists signed an open letter criticizing the way the project is being managed. The letter states:

“We believe the HBP is not a well-conceived or implemented project and that it is ill suited to be the centerpiece of European neuroscience.”

There appear to be two main points to the criticism – the first is that the money is largely going to computer scientists to create the software that will simulate the human brain. The neuroscientists complain that while the project is being sold to the public as a neuroscience project, in reality it is an IT project.

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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.
_________

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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