Oct 20 2015

Another Nail in the JFK Conspiracy

More than 50 years after JFK was shot and killed by Lee Harvey Oswald the majority of Americans believe that the assassination was part of a conspiracy. Recent Gallup polls show that 61% believe others were involved in the assassination, while 30% believe Oswald acted alone (in 2000 the numbers were 81% and 13% respectively).

This is despite the fact that the evidence overwhelmingly shows that Oswald acted alone, and there is no solid evidence of any conspiracy. What this reflects, in my opinion, is two things: the psychological allure of conspiracy theories, and the cottage industry of conspiracy theorists.

Whenever I discuss conspiracy theories I have to add this caveat about what I mean. Obviously there are real conspiracies in the world – whenever two or more people work together to commit a crime or do something nefarious, you have a conspiracy. “Conspiracy theories,” however, is short hand for a grand conspiracy, something that involves many people or powerful organizations working over long periods of time through vast networks of control.

Continue Reading »


Comments: 21

Oct 16 2015

NZ Pharmacists Want to Sell Snakeoil

A recent proposed change to the New Zealand code of conduct for pharmacists provides yet more evidence for my primary criticism of the alternative medicine phenomenon (CAM), that it is explicitly about creating a double standard, while convincing the public that it isn’t. What was considered health fraud 50 years ago has been transformed through deception and clever marketing (facilitated by a willful media and naive regulators and professionals) into an “alternative” that should be “integrated” into science-based health care.

Broadly speaking, there are systems in place to ensure a reasonable standard of safety and effectiveness for medical products and practices. These standards are based upon evidence, as they should be. There have always been operating in the fringes, however, those who are somewhere on the spectrum from true believers to con-artists who want to sell their treatments despite a lack of evidence.

Despite having an NIH office dedicated to finding evidence to support such treatments, and despite raking in literally billions of dollars which could be used to fund research, for the most part the evidence never materialized. Homeopathy, acupuncture, and energy healing continue to lack evidence of efficacy.

Continue Reading »


Comments: 20

Oct 15 2015

The Nature of Hallucinations

A new study tests a hypothesis about the nature of hallucinations, which is a sensory perception not connected to reality (an illusion, by contrast, is a misperception of something that is there). The question the researchers were addressing is whether hallucinations are best understood as a shift in the balance of a normal brain function.

This is an interesting general question in trying to understand brain function and disorders. Many brain disorders are understood not as something in the brain being “broken” but simply out of its optimal parameters. Anxiety is a great example. The phenomenon of anxiety is a healthy and necessary brain function. If you completely lacked anxiety you would lack the motivation to look both ways before crossing the street, or even to have a job or take care of yourself. Too much anxiety, however, can become uncomfortable or even crippling.

The question is, does this same logic apply to hallucinations? Researchers from Cambridge and Cardiff Universities in the UK think the answer is yes.

The basic brain function they think is altered in hallucinations is the relationship between what they call top-down vs bottom-up perception. Bottom up perception involves sensory information being processed by primary sensory systems in the brain, then being passed onto higher and higher systems for analysis, construction, and assigning of meaning.

Continue Reading »


Comments: 14

Oct 13 2015

The Nobel and Chinese Medicine

The 2015 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine went to three scientists who discovered treatments for parasites. Tu Youyou shared half the prize for her discovery of artemisinin, an effective drug against malaria.

Youyou is a Chinese researcher and, as has been widely reported, she relied on traditional Chinese texts to search for candidate herbs to test for activity against malaria. This has sparked a public debate about what lessons we can derive from this fact. Promoters of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) argue that is shows the value of TCM. Amazingly (revealing their intellectual dishonesty) Naturopaths crowed that this was a vindication of naturopathic medicine.

Scott Gavura over at Science-Based Medicine gives a great analysis of what Youyou’s work really means. Meanwhile the New York Times struggles to give a “false balance” approach to the issue. There are a few interesting points worth highlighting.

The story itself is uncontroversial. Youyou set out specifically to find a drug that would be effective against malaria, which remains a serious medical problem for much of the world. Existing drugs, quinine and chloroquine, were developing resistance, and a replacement was needed. Her starting point was TCM texts, looking for any natural product that was used to treat fever. She came up with 2000 candidates.

Continue Reading »


Comments: 21

Oct 12 2015

Ideology In Search of a Justification

One of the hallmarks of pseudoscience is that it works backwards – typically those engaging in pseudoscience begin with a conclusion and then work backwards to fill in the evidence and logic. People are generally very good at this type of process, which is often referred to as rationalization.

There are several specific components to the pseudoscientific process. In order to find positive evidence for the desired conclusion, the rationalizer will cherry pick evidence. This allows them to quote studies and scientists to make it seem like their conclusions are based on science.

In order to refute any evidence against their conclusion, they will simply find fault with any inconvenient evidence. Here I find a range of sophistication. At the complex end of the spectrum, usually those with some science background, specific weaknesses of studies can be pointed out. No study is perfect, so if you want to find fault with a study you can. It is always necessary to put any criticisms into context – are these fatal flaws, or minor quibbles. This requires judgement, and it is precisely judgement that is skewed in the pseudoscientific process.

Continue Reading »


Comments: 77

Oct 09 2015

Nature Defends Science Communication

An editorial in Nature Biotechnology titled, Standing Up for Science, takes direct aim at the problem of science communication in our society. (It’s a short article – read it.) It’s a wonderful editorial, and I completely agree with it. This should not come as a surprise to any regular readers here.

The article focuses on the recent events involving US Right to Know using Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to essentially harass public scientists and troll through their e-mails so that they can take lines out of context and use it for anti-GMO propaganda. This effort was funded in part by a $47,500 donation from the Organic Consumers Association. The irony of this was apparently completely lost on USRTK.

The main target (so far, this affair is likely not over) was Kevin Folta, a gifted and dedicated science communicator (he has been a guest on the SGU a couple of times and was a speaker at NECSS). The “smoking gun” revealed by USRTK was that Monsanto had donated $25,000 (that’s $22,500 less than USRTK got from Big Organic) to Kevin’s University for public outreach, funds which he used to pay for gas money and snacks when he traveled for public speaking engagements. As Nature points out:

Folta broke no laws. The Monsanto funds were a donation to his university’s Foundation outreach program. They were tied neither to him directly nor to his research. His conflict of interest disclosures were wholly compliant with his university’s rules. He never used industry funds for personal gain.

Continue Reading »


Comments: 13

Oct 08 2015

CRISPR and a Hypoallergenic Peanut

Anyone with a child in school is probably aware of the need for peanut free zones. You get a notice when your child returns from school on the first day stating that at least one child in their class has a peanut allergy, which means nothing with peanuts gets sent to school for your child’s lunch. If you are a parent of a child with a peanut allergy you understand how important and serious this is – your child is literally one errant Snickers bar away from death.

The general consensus is that food allergies have been on the rise in developed countries, although studies show a wide range of estimates based upon study techniques. A US review found the prevalence of self-reported peanut allergies ranged from 0-2%. A European review found the average estimate to be 2.2% – around 2% is usually the figure quoted. In a direct challenge study, at age 4, 1.1% of the 1218 children were sensitized to peanuts, and 0.5% had had an allergic reaction to peanuts. That means there are millions of people with peanut allergies.

So far there is no cure for the allergies themselves. Acute attacks can be treated with epinephrine, but there are cases of children dying (through anaphylaxis) even after multiple shots. The only real treatment is to obsessively avoid contact with the food in question. Peanuts, tree nuts, and shellfish are the foods most likely to cause anaphylaxis.

Continue Reading »


Comments: 18

Oct 06 2015

The Diabetes Treatment Your Doctor Won’t Tell You About

Because it’s bogus.

It’s unfortunate that it’s so easy to convince many people that there is a vast medical conspiracy, and that a few brave mavericks are willing to bring you “the truth.” I was recently asked to look at this website, claiming that doctors who treat diabetes have all been lying to their patients and the world. They promise to reveal the secret of curing diabetes, but the long video, and the endless website, is all just one long commercial hyping their book which you can get for the “bargain basement reduced price of just $77 for the digital copy or $94.39 for the paperback copy with free worldwide shipping.”

The sales pitch is framed as an “Urgent diabetes health bulletin from the doctors at the International Council for Truth in Medicine.” (Quackwatch lists the ICTM as a “questionable organization.”) To backup their authority they claim they are in partnership with “Natural News.” Given that Natural News is, in my opinion, the most notorious crank, conspiracy mongering, health misinformation site on the web, that is all you need to know about the ICTM to make an informed judgement.

Their narrative is depressingly typical, and not even imaginative. The tropes are so common they are worth addressing in detail.

Continue Reading »


Comments: 12

Oct 05 2015

Innumeracy – The Hot Hands Debate Continues

There is a general consensus that people overall do not have a good intuitive grasp of statistics. In addition, there are multiple biases filtering our perception and memory. Therefore we tend to engage in a biased evaluation of biased data. The entire gambling industry depends on this fact.

As an example, consider the famous Monty Hall problem. In the classic game show, Let’s Make a Deal, the host Monty Hall would often show three doors to the contestant. In this problem Monty Hall says that behind two of the doors there are goats and behind one there is a new car. The contestant chooses one of the three doors. Monty (who knows where the car is) then opens one of the doors the contestant did not choose to reveal one of the two goats. He then offers the contestant the opportunity to change their pick to the other remaining door. Should they switch?

The answer is unequivocally yes. Yet many people have a very difficult time grasping the statistics behind the explanation. In fact, statistics can be so counter-intuitive that the world’s psychology researchers may in fact perpetuate an error for thirty years before someone realizes it. That is what two researchers (Miller and Sanjurjo) are now claiming.

Continue Reading »


Comments: 82

Oct 02 2015

The Problem of Space Junk

Published by under Astronomy
Comments: 6

We have been putting stuff into orbit around the Earth, especially low-Earth orbit, for the last 58 years. Space is a big place, so no one probably worried at first that we would start junking it up, but that is exactly what has happened in this short span of time. This is now a serious issue we have to confront.

It’s disappointing, and I hate having one more thing to worry about, but Earth orbit has become so cluttered with debris that it poses a serious risk to our assets in space. Recently former NASA scientist Donald Kessler said in an interview:

“We’re at what we call a ‘critical density’ — where there are enough large objects in space that they will collide with one another and create small debris faster than it can be removed.”

NASA scientists also fear a scenario similar to that portrayed in the movie, Gravity. There were some scientific problems with the movie, but the core idea is valid – there is so much debris in orbit that a collision of two large objects can start a chain-reaction, they will scatter debris which will collide with other objects causing more debris.

Continue Reading »


Comments: 6

« Prev - Next »