May 26 2016

What’s Killing the Bees

honeybeesYesterday I saw a bumper sticker that stated, “Save the Bees, Buy Organic.” Of course, a bumper sticker is not the place for a nuanced or thorough treatment of a complex topic. It is a venue suitable for simplistic slogans.

People like simple narratives, but reality rarely conforms to our desires. This has led to a frequent reminder, popularized by Ben Goldacre, that you will often find the situation (pretty much whatever situation you consider) is more complex than it might at first seem. That is a good rule of thumb – it is fair to assume as a default that any topic is more complex than your current understanding, or how it is being presented in the media, or how it is understood in the public consciousness.

Complex and ambiguous situations, like the fate of our pollinators, become a convenient Rorschach test for ideology. People tend to impose on this complex and not fully understood situation whatever simplistic narrative suits their beliefs and values, like the notion that organic farming will somehow save the bees. Continue Reading »

Comments: 14

May 24 2016

Naturopaths Are Not Doctors

Herbal Medicine

This is the title of a change.org petition started by former naturopath, Britt Hermes. Please take some time to read and hopefully sign it.

Hermes has a significant insight into the state of naturopathic practice and education, since she was trained as a naturopath. She came to the conclusion that she was duped into a scam of a profession and now she tries to raise awareness of naturopathy to protect others from this scam.

Pseudosciences often depend upon ignorance of what they actually are in order to promote themselves and gain public approval. In the case of naturopaths they also depend upon the ignorance of politicians as they seek licensure, and then to expand their practice privileges and to force insurance companies to pay for their services.

In short, naturopaths desire all the status and privileges of medical doctors, but without the training, experience, or science-based standard of care.

You may think I am being hard on naturopaths, but that is likely because they have been successful in selling their narrative and confusing the public about what they actually do.

Continue Reading »

Comments: 8

May 23 2016

Who Owns Your Genetic information?

genetic codeA genetic testing company, Myriad, is embroiled in a controversy over who owns genetic information. The company performs genetic testing, such as for BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes with variants that are associated with higher risk of breast cancer.

It has been the company’s policy to release information to their clients on any pathological gene variants, those known or suspected of being associated with higher breast cancer risk. If, however, the client has what is currently believed to be a benign variant, that is all they are told. They aren’t given the specific information about the gene sequence, just a note that it is benign.

Further, the company has declined to share its vast database of information with open source databases being used for research. The company cited patient privacy as their reason for not sharing data.

Now, several clients have sued Myriad to have their full genetic information released to them. It turns out a new rule under HIPPA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) requires that companies release full genetic information to patients. Faced with this the company has decided to release the information to those who request it, but insist that it is voluntary and will still not release such information routinely (only to individuals who request it).

Continue Reading »

Comments: 5

May 19 2016

Skepticism and the Fallacy of Relative Privation

There has been a lively exchange surrounding John Horgan’s article about skeptics, which I responded to previously. (See also Orac’s and Daniel Loxton’s responses.) At the core of Horgan’s piece is a logical fallacy so common, I feel it deserves special attention. In fact, PZ Myers wrote approvingly of Horgan’s fallacy, showing that it is still alive and well.

That fallacy can be called the fallacy of relative privation, which is a type of red herring or distraction from actual issues. The fallacy is essentially an argument that a problem is not important or does not deserve attention and resources because there are other more important problems. “Why are you wasting your time on X when there are children dying of cancer?”

In Horgan’s case, he would like us to end all war and bring about everlasting world peace before we tackle lesser problems like quackery, fraud, global warming, vaccine denial, the environment, and other such trivialities.

Continue Reading »

Comments: 38

May 17 2016

John Horgan is “Skeptical of Skeptics”

NECSS2016This past weekend at NECSS 2016 we invited science journalist John Horgan to give a talk on “Skepticism: Hard Versus Soft Targets.” We’re always game for some critical introspection. It keeps things interesting if nothing else.

Unfortunately the talk, which he has now published on Scientific American’s website (which means it’s fair game), was more than a bit disappointing – not because he was critical, but because he does not seem to get skepticism with a small or a big “S.” The result was a string of cherry picked strawmen.

He begins:

“I hate preaching to the converted. If you were Buddhists, I’d bash Buddhism. But you’re skeptics, so I have to bash skepticism.”

That makes you a contrarian, not a skeptic. How about telling it like it is? Most ideas and movements are a mix of good and bad, and it often takes some effort and nuance to tease this apart. Or, you can just “bash” an entire philosophy simplistically because you fancy yourself an independent thinker. There is also nothing wrong with “preaching” to the choir – it’s not about conversion, but education.

Continue Reading »

Comments: 194

May 16 2016

Review of Probiotics

probioticsThe idea behind probiotics superficially sounds reasonable – friendly bacteria are important to the functioning of our gastrointestinal (GI) system and immune system. Probiotic products are supposed to supplement those friendly bacteria with live bacteria from certain foods, such as yogurt, or even in capsules.

A recent paper, however, reviews studies looking at probiotics in healthy subjects, finding no evidence for benefit. Let’s take a close look at this study and the science of probiotics.

The systematic review focused on studies looking at the change in the composition of bacteria in feces in healthy adults taking probiotics compared to placebo. They found:

Seven RCTs investigating the effect of probiotic supplementation on fecal microbiota in healthy adults were identified and included in the present systematic review. The quality of the studies was assessed as medium to high. Still, no effects were observed on the fecal microbiota composition in terms of α-diversity, richness, or evenness in any of the included studies when compared to placebo. Only one study found that probiotic supplementation significantly modified the overall structure of the fecal bacterial community in terms of β-diversity when compared to placebo.

Continue Reading »

Comments: 240

May 10 2016

Criminalizing Climate Change Denial

Temp_anomalyHere is a non-controversial topic – some attorneys general in the US are exploring the idea of criminal charges against certain climate change deniers. This round of the climate debate was triggered by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman who issued a subpoena to ExxonMobil for financial records, e-mails, and other documents. This was followed by Attorney General Claude E. Walker of the U.S. Virgin Islands who issued a subpoena to the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) for their documents related to their climate research and policy activity.

Investigation of oil companies is partly financial, did they mislead investors and overvalue their companies by ignoring the financial costs of climate change and the potential of having to leave fossil fuel assets in the ground?

Investigation of the CEI has a different focus, are they engaged in a conspiracy to mislead the public and affect public policy by knowingly manufacturing false doubt about the science of climate change? Continue Reading »

Comments: 85

May 09 2016

Still No Association of Cell Phones and Brain Cancer

cell.phone.giI have been following the scientific research looking into any possible association between cell phones and brain cancer. A new study coming out of Australia adds to this literature and argues against any association.

The question is obviously an important one, and has drawn some public attention. However, scientists argue about whether or not a causal relationship between cell phones and cancer is impossible or just really low. I fall into the really low camp, but the distinction is minor.

Plausibility

The key fact to understand about cell phones is that they produce non-ionizing radiation. By definition, ionizing radiation is powerful enough to break chemical bonds. This is a health concern because breaking such bonds could cause mutations in DNA, and some of those mutations may turn a healthy cell into a cancerous cell. This is the primary reason that radiation causes cancer.

Continue Reading »

Comments: 7

May 06 2016

Acupuncture for Tension-Type Headache

acupuncture2A newly updated Cochrane systematic review of 12 studies looking at acupuncture for the treatment of tension-type headaches (TTH) concluded:

The available evidence suggests that a course of acupuncture consisting of at least six treatment sessions can be a valuable option for people with frequent tension-type headache.

This has led to another round of headlines that, “Acupuncture works but no one knows how.”

A closer look at the data, however, does not back up that conclusion, in my opinion. Cochrane is generally considered to be the gold standard for evidence-based systematic reviews, but their history is dodgy when it comes to unconventional treatments. For example, they famously had to withdraw their review of homeopathic occillococcinum for the flu because they concluded, although the evidence was insufficient to recommend, it was “promising” and deserved further research.

Their updated review is not much better, however:

There is insufficient good evidence to enable robust conclusions to be made about Oscillococcinum® in the prevention or treatment of influenza and influenza-like illness. Our findings do not rule out the possibility that Oscillococcinum® could have a clinically useful treatment effect but, given the low quality of the eligible studies, the evidence is not compelling.

Continue Reading »

Comments: 26

May 05 2016

Trump and GMO Labels – Never Means Never

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump smiles during a campaign stop, Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2016, in Bluffton, S.C. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Donald Trump is the last Republican standing, which means he will be that party’s nominee. I know is this a studiously non-political blog, but this is an issue that transcends politics.

It doesn’t matter if Trump is left, right, liberal, conservative, libertarian, progressive, Democrat or Republican (he seems to be all of those things, sometimes in the same sentence). It doesn’t even matter if he is a Washington insider or outsider.

What should interest American voters the most is that Trump is an arrogant conspiracy theorist. He is an antivaccine loon. Worse, as I pointed out before, he has been publicly corrected on his incorrect views about vaccines for at least a decade, and shows no evidence of modifying his views.

He also (no surprise) denies human-caused global climate change, and even then just loosely parrots standard talking points and gets them wrong. He flirts with 911 truth. He famously is an Obama birther.

Continue Reading »

Comments: 34

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