Aug 11 2017

Alex Jones – Snake Oil Salesman

Patent-medicine5If Alex Jones lived 150 years ago he would have traveled around with a horse-drawn wagon selling his patent medicine with a medicine show featuring amazing stories about hacking his way through the jungle to find cures and sitting down with Indian medicine-men to learn their secrets.

Today he has his own TV show where he tells amazing stories of conspiracies in order to sell dubious supplements.

I have to admit, Jones had me fooled for a while. I was only paying slight attention to the nonsense he spewed on InfoWars, enough to know that he was a raving conspiracy theorist. I paid closer attention when he claimed that the Sandy Hook school shooting was a false flag operation. Anyone as popular and flamboyant as Jones is likely supplementing their true belief with showmanship. I now, however, think it’s more likely that Jones is pure showmanship.

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Comments: 11

Aug 10 2017

Are Logical Fallacies Useful?

logical-fallacies-everywhereUnderstanding the nature of argument and specific logical fallacies is a cornerstone of critical thinking. I was therefore surprised when I read an article by a philosopher, Maarten Boudry, titled: “The Fallacy Fork: Why It’s Time to Get Rid of Fallacy Theory.”

Boudry lays out what he feels is a critical weakness in using the notion of logical fallacies to police sloppy thinking and his solution is to abandon the notion of informal logical fallacies altogether. I strongly disagree, and ironically I think Boudry is committing a couple logical fallacies in his argument.

The Fallacy Fork

The basis of his position is the notion of what he and his coauthors on a 2015 paper call “The Fallacy Fork.” The basic idea is that informal logical fallacies are highly context dependent. Let’s take as an example the fallacy of confusing correlation with causation. Because this reasoning is context dependent there is a spectrum in terms of how absolutely one makes this argument.

So, someone might say that correlation is always due to direct causation, which is clearly not true. They might also take the position that one particular causation must be true because of a correlation, which again is demonstrably false. There is no legitimate “always” or “must” with such arguments.

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Aug 07 2017

Token Skepticism about Exorcism

I was interviewed a few months ago by a journalist, John Blake, doing a piece on exorcism. That article has now been published, and I’m afraid it’s disappointing in all the predictable ways.

The article is mostly about Dr. Richard Gallagher, a Yale-trained psychiatrist who believes in demonic possession. Gallagher is like catnip to a journalist – someone with credentials who has a fantastical story to tell. Is demonic possession real? This Yale psychiatrist says, “Yes.”

I have already deconstructed Gallagher’s claims, and the CNN article provides nothing new. Gallagher’s evidence that some people are actually possessed is predictably thin and proves only his lack of critical thinking. He cites the claim that possessed people display hidden knowledge, but his examples are far more easily explained as cold reading. He cites displays of extraordinary strength, which is not unusual for ordinary people under the influence of adrenaline.

He also cites hearsay – other people have told him they saw levitation, although he never witnessed it himself.

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Aug 04 2017

Lectin – The New Food Bogeyman

red-kidney-beans-on-a-wooden-tableDo you want to get rich on the internet? Here is a simple formula. First, purge yourself of any ethics or scruples you may have. Suppress any urge for intellectual honesty.

Next, pretend you are an expert. Actual expertise is not necessary. In fact, you don’t even need a basic 5th grade level of knowledge. There are titles you can grant yourself to easily accomplish this step: life coach, nutritionist, health ranger, food chick, whatever.

Now you are almost there. All you have to do is create a demand for some useless snake oil that you can sell online for a ridiculous markup. At this point you might be thinking – why would anyone buy my useless snake oil? It’s actually a lot easier than you think, and marketers have been using some version of this strategy since the barter system was invented. In a word – fear.

Just make your marks (I mean customers) afraid of something and then sell them the solution. It’s easier than you might think, everything you need is already on the internet. Recently John Oliver showed how Alex Jones uses crazy conspiracy theories to stoke fear and rage in his audience then sell them water filters and supplements as a solution. He is also selling a conspiracy culture and convinces his gullible audience that they need to support him so that he can get the truth out there. Jones can even admit it’s all an act and it doesn’t matter, because he successfully created an environment in which facts and truth are whatever he says they are – a marketer’s dream.

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Aug 03 2017


brainpuzzleIf I gave you a string of digits to remember, how many do you think you could handle? For example, try to remember the number – 8945557302. That’s 10 digits. Most people can handle only 7, and there is a specific neurological reason for this. Our working memory is wired for about 7 bits of information (give or take 1-2 bits). Now, try to remember the number as 894-555-7302. That is recognizable as a phone number, and despite the fact that the individual digits exceed our bit capacity, most people can remember such numbers.

Grouping bits of information into recognizable patterns in order to make them easier to remember is a phenomenon called chunking, first described by George Miller in his 1956 book, The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on our Capacity for Processing Information.

Chunking is best established as a mnemonic device. Miller and others conducted experiments to see how much chunking as a strategy could extend the limits of human memory. For example, the typical number of binary bits, such as Morse code, people can remember is 9. However, someone who understands morse code will chunk the individual bits into groupings of three, each one representing a letter. They will then group letters into words and words into sentences.  This type of chunking extended memory from 9 to 40 binary bits.

Another study involved a runner tasked to remember strings of digits, again starting with a typical digit span of 7. However, he was encouraged to chunk the digits into race times – a meaningful pattern with which he was very familiar. With a little practice he increased his digit span to 80 numbers.

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Comments: 16

Aug 01 2017

Snake Oil 1970s Style

laetrileOn a recent post I repeated my long challenge to name any alternative medicine treatment that has been rejected by CAM proponents because of evidence of lack of efficacy. I am not aware of any. It doesn’t seem to ever happen – because alternative medicine is disconnected from evidence and reality.

As if to make my point, I came across this article on Buzzfeed about laetrile – yeah, laetrile. For those of you old enough to remember, laetrile is a fake cancer cure that was already being made fun of on Saturday Night Live in the 1970s (the original cast). I haven’t heard of this one for a while, but apparently it is making a comeback.

The story of laetrile, in addition to demonstrating yet again that snake oil peddlers are con artists, also showcases how the world has changed in the last forty years when it comes to health fraud (hint – not for the better). Continue Reading »

Comments: 9

Jul 31 2017

The Goldwater Rule Revisited

goldwaterIn 1964 Fact Magazine published an article titled: “1,189 Psychiatrists say Goldwater is Psychologically Unfit to be President!”  They were later sued successfully for defamation. This incident led the The Goldwater rule – Section 7 in the American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) Principles of Medical Ethics, which states it is unethical for psychiatrists to give a professional opinion about public figures they have not examined in person, and from whom they have not obtained consent to discuss their mental health in public statements.

This rule has held sway for the last 50 years. However, recently the American Psychoanalytic Association (APsaA) e-mailed its members to inform them that they are not constrained by the Goldwater rule. So which stance is correct?

There are two competing ethical principles at stake. The first is the ethical responsibility of professionals not to cause harm to someone else by making public statements they have no business making. This is especially true when it comes to psychiatric diagnoses, because they carry a heavy and (in my opinion) unjustified stigma. The mere fact of being a public figure does not mean that medical professionals are free to bypass confidentiality and consent to make public speculations about your mental health.

Further, psychiatric diagnoses are especially complex and subjective. In order to make a accurate diagnosis you need a lot of background information about a person, and you need some professional interaction. This should ideally be a personal examination, however watching a video of another professional conducting an examination could suffice. But even then, the purpose of psychiatric diagnoses is to guide therapy. They are still fuzzy and subjective entities. It seems profoundly unethical to turn them against an individual, and use a formal diagnosis to medicalize their personality and behavior for non-therapeutic purposes.

When dealing with politicians, it is further very difficult for professionals to filter out their own ideology or personal feelings. It becomes too easy to use the tools of medicine for political fighting.

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Comments: 184

Jul 28 2017

Should You Complete That Course of Antibiotics?

antibiotic-resistanceAs with most things, the answer is more complicated than it may at first seem.

Up to now the official answer was simple – always finish prescribed courses of antibiotics. Stopping early, it was argued, could increase the risk of antibiotic resistance. The idea is that bacteria which are a little resistant to the antibiotic will survive longer, and if they are not wiped out by completing the course, the partially resistant bugs will then reproduce, with random mutations leading to greater resistance. The antibiotics are essentially a selective pressure leading to resistance.

This makes sense, and is almost certainly true with certain chronic infections, such as tuberculosis.

A new review, however, suggests that we cannot apply this rule simplistically to all infections. It depends on the type of bacteria involved.

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Comments: 13

Jul 27 2017

Computer-Assisted Diagnosis

It is very disheartening for me to listen to the political discussions surrounding health care. I can’t help thinking that the proposed changes amount to rearranging the furniture on the deck of the Titanic.

This is not to say that there aren’t important policy decisions at stake. It is important that everyone has health coverage, as a matter of efficiency and just compassion. However, the health care debate is often framed as an attempt to reduce health care costs. This is where the rearranging the deck furniture metaphor is apt.

There are some minor efficiencies to be gained in how we pay for health care, but that is not going to touch the real driver of rising health care costs – technology. Of course there are multiple factors, but the main one is the fact that we have the technology to deliver more care and more expensive care, and to keep people alive longer. This is combined with a culture that demands expensive care. We want MRI scans for every ailment, and the most aggressive procedures to keep our loved ones going for as long as possible.

More care and higher tech care costs more money.

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Comments: 25

Jul 25 2017

The Speed of Commercial Jets

nasa_supersonic_conceptWhen I was about 10 my family flew to California to visit my uncle. The flight from New York to LA took about 6 hours. Forty years later a flight from New York to LA still takes about 6 hours (exact flight times vary by airline, but 6 hours is typical).

The pace of technological advance in the last century has been so fast that we generally expect everything to get faster, better, cheaper as a matter of course. So the flat commercial travel times seems to be a weird exception.

Airline travel has improved over this time. Jets have become safer and more fuel efficient. Average costs of flights have decreased by about 50%, although apparently this had more to do with deregulation than technology. It may also have something to do with the shrinking legroom in economy class. But still, why does it take me 6 hours to fly across the country?

There are a number of reasons for the flat commercial flight speeds, which make it seem that there is unlikely to be a change anytime soon.

Supersonic Flight

The first factor that most people likely consider is that we are pushing up against the sound barrier. This is partly true, but not the whole story. The Concorde, which was the only commercial supersonic jet, was retired in 2003. This was mainly because flights were too expensive and it wasn’t commercially viable. There have been no plans to bring it back or replace it.

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