Feb 17 2015

Anderson Cooper Takes Down Dan Burton

I criticize bad, biased, and or just lazy science journalism frequently, and so it’s a pleasure to occasionally have the opportunity to praise good journalism. This recent interview of Dan Burton by Anderson Cooper could be a template for how to conduct an interview over a scientific issue.

Dan Burton is a former Republican Congressman who has a long history of being anti-vaccine. He likes to repeat anti-vaccine tropes, and does so with the clueless persistence of a seasoned politician with an agenda.

Anderson Cooper is one of the few American journalists who has demonstrated his ability to do a tough and probing interview – you know, actual journalism. He demonstrated his chops again here. Specifically:

He was clearly prepped for the interview. He did his research, understood the issues, and was able to challenge Burton on specific points. You can’t go into an interview like this cold, or with only a superficial understanding of the issue. You have to know what the other person is going to say and how to respond.

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Feb 16 2015

New Caveatus Emptora Superfood Medicinal Supplement

About once a week I get a question about a specific supplement, often new but sometimes a supplement that has been around for a while. The questioner wants to know if there is any value to the product. I suspect they often already know the answer, but it’s hard to resist the promises being made. I can give a generic answer, an emphatic, “No,” because the marketing of such products is just as generic. You literally can substitute the name of any new supplement you wish to market into the copy.

Snake oil purveyors are looking for the next exotic plant from a tropical location that they can sell as a supplement. It doesn’t matter what it is. Science and evidence do not even enter the equation. They want to know – can they get a supply of it, or even corner the market. If they cannot get enough of the plant it doesn’t matter. They will fill their bottles with wheat, alfalfa, or other fillers. Then they put it in a bottle, plug in the standard claims, do a little marketing, and rake in the millions. That’s it. Sometimes they deliberately adulterate their supplement with actual drugs, especially if they are for weight loss or erectile dysfunction.

Does the new exotic supplement from Gondwanaland, Caveatus Emptora, really work? No! It’s a scam. Save your money.

There are a few standard types of these scams. Here is the most recent miracle supplement about which I was asked, but I will swap out the name so as not to give it the slightest additional exposure.

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Feb 13 2015

Darwin Was Not Wrong Day

Yesterday was February 12th, the birthday of Charles Darwin, who introduced (along with Alfred Wallace) the theory of evolution to the world. Darwin remains one of the most famous scientists to have ever lived, and his life’s work was truly a staggering accomplishment.

There has been an increasing movement to make February 12th Darwin Day in recognition of this great scientist and his work. Skeptics and secularists have been celebrating it for years. Last month Delaware governor Jack Markell declared February 12th Darwin Day for his state. In the US Congress, Representative Jim Himes (D-Connecticut) has sponsored a bill to make February 12th Darwin Day. This will probably die in committee, like previous similar resolutions, but at least someone is trying.

Creationists, predictably, are not happy. Ken Ham want February 12th to be declared, “Darwin was wrong day.” This, of course, is nothing new, but is an opportunity to reveal the thought process of some creationists. Some creationists like to pretend they reject evolution because they disagree with the science. This is transparently not true – the reject evolution because of their religious faith, and then just backfill whatever justifications they can manufacture with motivated reasoning.

Ham reveals this to be the case when he writes:

But those who promote Charles Darwin Day are really promoting an anti-God religion. The evolutionary worldview is an attempt to explain the universe and life without God. It’s a religion of naturalism and atheism. Sadly, many Christians buy into this religion and simply squeeze God into the gaps somewhere. By doing this, it is really no different than the Israelites who adopted the idolatry of the pagan nations and added it to their religious system.

He is against even attempting to explain the world without God. This, of course, denies the world view of anyone who does not share his particular faith.

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Feb 12 2015

Scott Adams on Science and Nutrition

In a recent blog post, Dilbert writer Scott Adams wrote:

What’s is science’s biggest fail of all time?

I nominate everything about diet and fitness.

Maybe science has the diet and fitness stuff mostly right by now. I hope so. But I thought the same thing twenty years ago and I was wrong.

From there he goes on what can charitably be called a rant against science, arguing that the public is justified in not trusting the findings of science because science has been wrong before. Adams’ criticisms, however, are based largely in his own misunderstanding of science.

He makes two major errors in his analysis. The first is to confuse mainstream media reporting of science with the science itself. The second is to have an incorrect image of how science progresses over time.

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Feb 10 2015

Regulating Supplements

While I try to stick in these articles to science and critical thinking, and try to minimize any expression of my personal ideology or political opinion, I make no secret of the fact that I support fair and effective government regulation of all aspects of healthcare. This is partly because I feel the evidence strongly supports this position, but also I am a physician so it is my additional duty to advocate for the health of my patients and society.

The inadequate regulation of the supplement industry has recently been in the news and possibly (hopefully) this issue is coming to a head, perhaps sufficiently to garner the political will to revise current regulations.

First let me point out that I consider the pharmaceutical industry and the supplement industry to be essentially the same thing, the only real difference being the different rules for their regulation. They are different regulatory categories, but the companies making drugs and supplements have significant overlap. Further, the market forces are largely the same, the major difference being that for non-over-the-counter drugs a doctor’s prescription is needed.

I am often accused by defenders of supplements, homeopathy, and “natural” medicine of favoring the pharmaceutical industry, or at least giving them a pass. This is simply not true. I favor strong regulation of the pharmaceutical industry. I have specifically advocated reforms, such as registering clinical trials so drug companies cannot hide data. I favor recent reforms limiting conflicts of interest between physicians and pharmaceutical companies, and the full disclosure of any potential conflicts when they occur. I am against pharmaceutical industry practices, such as ghost authoring white papers to promote their products. There have been numerous multi-billion dollar settlements for pharmaceutical companies breaking the rules that govern the marketing of their products.

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Feb 09 2015

Three Person IVF

The United Kingdom’s House of Commons has recently voted to allow so-called three person in vitro fertilization. This opens the door to the UK being the first country to provide such a procedure.

The purpose of three person IVF is to allow a woman who carries a genetic mutation for a mitochondrial disorder to have her own genetic children without passing on the disease.

Mitochondria are organelles in every cell that produce energy. They are essentially the power plants of the cell. Evolutionarily they are likely the result of a symbiotic relationship between a prokaryote and eukaryote, meaning that the mitochondria were once independent living cells. They carry their own genes, and in fact have their own slightly different genetic code (evidence of their ancient origin).

There are a number of genetic diseases known as mitochondrial disease because they represent mutations in the mitochondrial genes. Since mitochondria are almost completely passed down through the maternal line, so are such diseases. The female eggs contain all the cellular structures of the fertilized egg, while the sperm contributes only its packet of DNA (although a stray mitochondrion might sneak through).

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Feb 06 2015

Did Williams Lie?

Memory is a slippery thing. We know from countless psychological studies that memories can easily be fabricated, they will alter over time, and details will shift to enhance the emotional theme of the story. Further, we tend to personalize stories – over time we remember events that happened to our friends as happening to us.

Recently NBC host Brian Williams was caught telling a version of an event that happened 12 years ago that differs from the version others recall, and the version that he himself told at the time. He and his cameraman were in a helicopter group during the Iraqi war in 2003. The leading three helicopters, which were 30-60 minutes ahead, were forced to land upon taking small arms fire, with one copter being hit by an RPG. Williams’ copter also landed when they arrived at the lead group in order to avoid being fired on. The group had to be rescued by ground troops and tanks.

The problem is that Williams’ retelling of this story has shifted a bit over the years, until in the last couple of years he puts himself in the helicopter that was hit by fire. Stars and Stripes gives the timeline of this shifting story. So what’s going on here.

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Feb 05 2015

A Better Steel

Material science seems to me to be an underappreciated discipline. Perhaps because its benefits are not seen directly by the consumer, but only indirectly. Material scientists don’t make a better gadget, but they make a better gadget possible. Sometimes a breakthrough can even be a complete game-changer for certain technologies.

Humans have been using an alloy of carbon and iron for over three thousand years. Iron is a very common element, making up about 5% of the Earth’s crust. Steel is iron with 0.2-1.5% carbon alloy. Carbon makes steel hard but brittle, and so carefully controlling the amount of carbon to optimize hardness but keep it malleable enough not to be brittle is what makes steel.

Steel is still on the cutting edge (pun intended) of material science. Researchers are still discovering ways to make steel lighter, stronger, and better suited to specific purposes. A recent paper, for example, presented a new technique for making blended steel that results in light, strong, and ductile steel – perfect for making more fuel efficient cars, for example.

A brief sidenote on terminology: “hardness” is the resistance to deformation by a force. There are different kinds of hardness, such as scratch hardness and compression hardness. “Strength” is the measure of a substances elastic range. “Toughness” is a measure of how much total energy a material can absorb before it breaks.

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Feb 03 2015

Vaccine Debate Heats Up

We seem to be going through a spasm of debating vaccines (if social media is any guide), probably provoked by the Disneyland measles outbreak (102 cases in January, mostly stemming from the outbreak). This recent outbreak has finally garnered the attention of the public at large who are starting to realize that antivaxxers are a threat to public health. This resulted in a wave of criticism.

At first it seemed like the antivaxxers were just going to lay low and ride out this recent outbreak, but I guess the tide of anti-antivax was just too great. Now they are starting to push back with, of course, greater levels of crazy, driving even more criticism. The debate has percolated up to the political class, with the predictable embarrassing comments by clueless politicians. And around it goes.

Given that I have been covering this issue for over a decade, I guess I have to jump back into the fray.

A recent Pew Poll regarding whether or not vaccines should be required is very interesting. It shows no significant difference by sex, race, or income (Hispanics were slightly more pro-vaccine). However, there was a significant age effect: 18-29 year olds were 59% in favor of required vaccinations, with increasing numbers in each age category, and 65+ year olds being 79% in favor. The question is – is this an age effect or a generational effect? If the latter then we could see waning support for requiring vaccines in the future.

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Feb 02 2015

Gravity Waves and Science Self-Correction

In 2011 scientists tentatively reported that they may have detected neutrinos traveling faster than the speed of light in apparent contradiction to the theory of relativity. By early 2012 the technical error that led to the apparent discovery was revealed.

Also in 2012 scientists reported that, using the Large Hadron Collider, they probably found the Higgs boson, the particle responsible for mass. However they were still not completely sure so they kept testing, and then last year they announced that indeed they did identify the Higgs as predicted by the standard model of particle physics.

In March of 2014, in what was definitely the biggest science news story of the year scientists reported detected gravity waves from the Big Bang, confirming the theory called the “inflationary universe.” The discovery was hailed as a “smoking gun.” Space.com at the time wrote:

If it holds up, the landmark discovery — which also confirms the existence of hypothesized ripples in space-time known as gravitational waves — would give researchers a much better understanding of the Big Bang and its immediate aftermath.

In those four little words, “if it holds up,” lies the essence of science. This is just a sample of recent big science news stories that reveal the process of science – skeptical questioning of all claims and testing those claims against objective evidence.

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