Jun 21 2016

The Improbability Principle

strawberrymoonPeople generally suck at statistics. Our innate sense of how likely something is does not accord very well with reality, especially for large numbers.

But don’t worry, this just means you have to think a little harder about how likely things are. David Hand writes about this in his 2014 book: The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day. This is making the rounds again in the media because of the recent “rare” astronomical events.

Yesterday the Summer Solstice coincided with the Strawberry Moon – the first full moon in June. The last time this happened was in 1967. Recently we have seen “rare” transits of Mercury and Venus across the sun.

These events are not that rare, and I really don’t see what the fuss is all about (I guess the media is desperate for anything they can hype.) Don’t get me wrong, I love astronomical events, it is their rarity that I think is overhyped.

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Comments: 20

Jun 20 2016

Massachusetts Senate Passes Naturopathic Practice Act

quackOne of the biggest challenges with trying to hold the line against pseudoscience in medicine is that the proponents of pseudoscience are relentless. Since they have a large financial stake in the outcome, they dedicate the time and resources to lobbying state legislatures to get the laws they want.

They lobby for health care freedom laws to weaken the standard of care, to carve out exemptions for particular kinds of quackery (like chronic Lyme quackery), to mandate coverage of worthless treatments through insurance, they fight for licensure of dubious professions, and then to expand their scope of practice. If they fail, they are back the following year, and they have the money to support their efforts.

Often such laws are passed before we even know they exist. There are just too many legislatures to watch, and often the efforts are deliberately under the radar. Every time the side of science wins, the victory is temporary. Every time the side of pseudoscience wins, their victory is permanent, and they slowly ratchet up the laws favorable to quacks and erode the standard of care.

The organizations that should be dedicating time and resources to fighting the advance of pseudoscience in medicine (like the AMA and state professional organizations) usually don’t. They are either gun shy or ideologically soft on pseudoscience. They are being placated with propaganda about how such treatments are harmless, just the soft and fuzzy part of medicine. Nothing to worry about.  Continue Reading »

Comments: 78

Jun 17 2016

Economics, Renewables, and Climate Change

Solar panel on a red roof reflecting the sun and the cloudless blue sky

The debate about anthropogenic global warming (AGW), in my opinion, is mostly silly. Most climate scientists are saying there is a 90-95% chance that human activity is driving global warming, and that this warming is likely to have some unwanted consequences, such as rising sea levels.

Phil Plait made an excellent analogy – what if the majority of the world’s astronomers said there was a 90-95% chance that an asteroid was going to strike the earth in 50 years? Hell, what if they said there was a 10% chance? How certain would we need to be before we decided to take action? Keep in mind, asteroids are easier to deflect the more time you have. The closer we get to the impact, the harder it is to avoid and at some point it becomes impossible.

Now imagine if one political party claimed that astronomers were exaggerating the risk to secure funding, that those who believed the astronomers were being “impact hysterics,” that asteroid impacts aren’t necessarily a bad thing, and there is probably nothing we can do about it anyway. An asteroid impact is more sudden and dramatic, but the effects of AGW could be comparable to a medium-sized impact in terms of the cost to civilization.

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Comments: 118

Jun 16 2016

NEJM Article On Randomized Clinical Trials

RCTHere is a curious article published recently in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM): Assessing the Gold Standard — Lessons from the History of RCTs. The article discusses the history and current role of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) in medical research and practice.

This is, of course, a very complex and important issue, worthy of serious discussion. The article, in my opinion, is a mixed bag. It correctly points out many of the issues with RCTs, but I feel draws the wrong conclusions from them.

Flawed or Broken

Flawed does not necessarily mean broken. I feel this concept applies frequently to such discussions, and if it is not explicitly explored then we end up just serving our own bias.

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Comments: 7

Jun 14 2016

GMOs – Have We Turned a Corner?

gmo cornScientific skeptics spend a great deal of their time and effort fighting against pseudoscience, ideology, and entrenched beliefs. This can be a frustrating effort, given that such beliefs tend not to be based in scientific thinking in the first place. It can be so frustrating that Marc Crislip chose as the symbol for the Society for Science-Based Medicine an image of Sisyphys endlessly pushing a rock up hill.

I do think we are having a significant impact on culture, the media, and the bigger conversation on scientific issues, but it is hard to measure, and sometimes even perceive, that impact. The noise of pseudoscience can seem overwhelming. We are mostly left to imagine that the situation would be much worse without our efforts and take comfort in small victories.

This is why I took notice of a recent article by Risk-Monger that claims we have changed the dynamic with respect to public opinion about genetically modified organisms (GMOs). He makes an interesting case that there has been a “Surprisingly Sudden Demise of the Anti-GMO Movement.” Here is his summary of the evidence: Continue Reading »

Comments: 17

Jun 13 2016

Stem Cell Treatment for Multiple Sclerosis

ms cortex-above-ventriclesThere has been a lot of reporting about a new stem cell treatment for multiple sclerosis (MS). The results are genuinely interesting, even exciting, but preliminary and need to be put into perspective.

MS is an autoimmune disease of the central nervous system, affecting the brain and spinal cord. Actually, it is a category of several diseases that are largely defined clinically, such as relapsing remitting MS and chronic progressive MS. These distinctions are meaningful because they do predict response to certain existing treatments. Relapsing forms of MS tend to respond to chronic immune modulating drugs, while progressive forms tend not to respond.

The immune system in MS patients is faulty, targeting the myelin around axons in the brain and spinal cord. Myelin is the insulation that allows axons to conduct. When the myelin breaks down due to inflammation this slows conduction, and if severe enough can even stop it completely. Symptoms depend on where these inflammatory lesions occur in the nervous system. If a motor pathway is affected, then weakness will result.

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Comments: 6

Jun 10 2016

How to Argue in the Comments

duty_callsI love a good disagreement. I seek them out, sometimes to the annoyance of family and friends who may not be in the mood for a heated discussion. I would actually argue with people who came to my door to spread their religion.

Judging by the typical comments section beneath just about any article or video on the internet, I am not alone. People love to argue, and the relative distance and anonymity of social media seems to have a disinhibiting effect.

How to effectively engage in various situations is one of the more common questions that I receive, and in fact I did a workshop on this question at the last TAM and NECSS. One section of the workshops focused on how to argue online, in a forum or the comments section.

Here are some of my thoughts. Keep in mind, I am not saying this is what you should do. My goal here is not to be a “tone troll” or dictate how people interact, even in the comments to my own blog. Frequent readers will recognize that I rarely moderate the comments, and only for the more egregious offences. Rather, I am just providing my thoughts and perspective, in the form of, “If your goal is X, you might want to consider these factors.”

What is your goal? Continue Reading »

Comments: 66

Jun 09 2016

Liberal vs Conservative Antiscience


On a recent Bill Maher show, Maher repeated his frequent claim that the Republicans are the party of antiscience. Neil deGrasse Tyson, who was a guest on that episode, countered:

“Don’t be too high and mighty there, because there are certain aspects of science denials that are squarely in the liberal left.”

There is no doubt that there are science deniers across the political spectrum. There are two points that I feel are in contention, however. Is there relatively more antiscience on the right than the left, and if so, what are the causes of the asymmetry?

Immediately there is a problem with this framing, as the political spectrum is more complicated than left vs right. However, most surveys use a three-point political designation: liberal (Democrat), conservative (Republican), Independent. So that is the data we have.

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Comments: 57

Jun 07 2016

Integrating Magic and Religion into Health Care

CARE-spoon bendingThe University of Alberta has become the latest battleground between advocates of science-based medicine and proponents of integrating magic and religion into our health care systems. In 2014 the university founded an Integrative Health Institute (IHI), which is headed by Sunita Vorha, who also is the director of their CARE program for integrative health and healing.

The debate has not changed, and it gets to the core foundation of modern health care. The SBM position is quite straightforward – as a profession, health care providers owe it to the public to base their advice and interventions on the best available science and evidence. It is our duty to establish and enforce a standard of care that includes adequate due diligence in determining the safety and effectiveness of interventions. The standard of care also includes giving patients proper informed consent and ethical standards of professionalism. There is also a well-established standard for conducting research on humans.

Essentially, we need to be reasonably sure that our interventions have more benefit than harm, and we need to tell our patients what they need to know so they can make informed decisions about their own health care. Continue Reading »

Comments: 8

Jun 06 2016

The Lost City

ZakynthosWe often don’t give nature enough credit. In many contexts, scientists or explorers find an anomaly and immediately the interest and speculation turns to intelligent agents at work. The ultimate expression of this, of course, is intelligent design creationism, where nature is denied credit for biology itself.

For example, snorklers discovered some odd shaped stones off the coast of the Greek island Zakynthos. The stones were surprisingly round, and so the immediate speculation was that these were the bases of pillars and are therefore the remains of an ancient Greek port, since lost to the sea.

I am not saying that this hypothesis is unreasonable, just that it seems to be the preferred hypothesis. This preference is also not unreasonable, because the remains of an ancient city are a lot more interesting than some oddly shapes stones (unless you’re a geologist).

Of course, there is always going to be someone taking such speculation too far, and prematurely concluding they have evidence for an intelligent artifact, even when further scientific investigation finds otherwise. It’s important to remember that in order to conclude that an anomaly is the product of deliberate artifice, we need further evidence. Greek ruins, for example, are lousy with pot shards. They are just everywhere. None have been found in the vicinity of the alleged pillars, however. This should give any ancient Greek port proponents extreme pause.

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Comments: 8

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