Jul 28 2015

Anecdotes and Cannabis Oil

An article making the rounds has this claim in the headline: This Man Was Given 18 Months To Live. Here’s How He Illegally Cured His Cancer. The article further explains that he “cured” his cancer with cannabis oil. This is highly misleading for multiple reasons.

This and other articles tell the story of David Hibbit, a 32 year old man who was diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2012. First, let me say that of course I wish nothing but the best for Mr. Hibbit. I hope his cancer is completely gone and he lives a long life with his family. Cancer is a serious and scary disease. It has touched my family, and I am sure statistically it has touched most people reading this.

That, in fact, is why we have to be so careful when relating stories about cancer. Patients have serious and high-stakes decisions to make about how they are going to treat their cancer. Luring them to bad decisions with false promises and misleading but highly emotional stories is irresponsible.

The core of bad reporting about cancer is the anecdote – the heartfelt story of an individual fighting cancer. Such stories are almost universally highly misleading. The public is being given an emotional narrative, not useful information.

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Comments: 15

Jul 27 2015

Artificially Selected Organisms

A new petition to Whitehouse.gov demands mandatory labeling for all “artificially selected organisms.” The petition says:

ASO plants or animals have had their genetic makeup altered to exhibit traits that are not naturally theirs. Artificial selection (or selective breeding) involves the selection of traits that are beneficial to humans, not what helps the organism survive in nature.

And concludes:

80% of Americans support mandatory labels on food containing DNA.

That last bit is true. A survey performed by Oklahoma State University Department of Agricultural Economics found that 80.44% of Americans supported “mandatory labels on foods containing DNA.” That puts into perspective public support for mandatory labels on genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The petition is obviously satire, and I think it represents the perfect use of satire – putting into sharp relief the illogic of a specific position or claim. This is a fight that happens almost every time a GMO supporter argues with a GMO critic. It goes something like this:

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Comments: 18

Jul 24 2015

Another Study that Doesn’t Show How Acupuncture Works

The pattern is now quite familiar – a study looking at some physiological outcome while rats or mice are being jabbed with needles is breathlessly presented as, “finally we know how acupuncture works.” As is always the case, a closer look reveals that the study shows nothing of the sort.

The current study making the rounds is, “Effects of Acupuncture, RU-486 on the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis in Chronically Stressed Adult Male Rats.” We are told that acupuncture has the same effect as pain medication, but honestly I don’t see that anywhere in the study.

The study presents two experiments with rats in which there is a control group, a stress group, stress plus acupuncture, and stress plus sham acupuncture. The first thing to notice is that the rats were not actually getting acupuncture. They were getting the fiction known as “electroacupuncture.” Electroacupuncture is not a real thing – it’s just electrical stimulation through a needle which is called an acupuncture needle.

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Jul 23 2015

Stem Cells and the Arc of Technology

I have noticed a common arc to many technologies. First they are known and discussed only by scientists and experts in the field. Then they are picked up technophiles who read nerdy magazines and websites. This is all while the research is preliminary and the technology just a distant hope for the future.

Then something happens that makes awareness of the potential technology go mainstream. This is often a movie depicting the technology, but can also be just an article in a more mainstream magazine or newspaper, an early demonstration of the potential for the technology, or a political controversy surrounding it. Then the hype begins.

The hype phase is driven by the researchers looking for more funding, the technophiles who have already been salivating over the technology for years, and a sensationalist media.

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Comments: 9

Jul 21 2015

Expertise and the Illusion of Knowledge

In general people think they know more than they do. This is arguably worse than mere ignorance – having the illusion of knowledge. Psychologist David Dunning (of the Dunning-Kruger effect) recently wrote in an editorial about his own study (which I discuss here):

“What’s curious is that, in many cases, incompetence does not leave people disoriented, perplexed, or cautious. Instead, the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge.”

Dunning was discussing the “ignorant mind.” Further, self-perceived expertise does not protect against this effect and in fact may make it worse. A new paper published in the latest issue of Psychological Science, When Knowledge Knows No Bounds: Self-Perceived Expertise Predicts Claims of Impossible Knowledge, presents four studies exploring the relationship between perceived expertise and the illusion of knowledge.

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Comments: 29

Jul 14 2015

Why Pluto is Important

As I write this post we are just minutes away from the closest approach of the New Horizons probe to Pluto, the farthest world we have thus far explored (24 minutes and counting). It’s an exciting moment, not just for astronomy buffs or science enthusiasts, but for humanity. I’m glad to see an appropriate level of excitement among the media and the general public.

Still, a couple of people have commented to me or in my presence that they don’t understand what the big deal is or why this is important, so allow me a moment to explore why I think this is such a big deal.

First, let us not forget what it took to get there. New Horizons is the fastest thing humans ever built. It shot past the moon in 8 hours and 35 minutes, and made a journey of 5 billion kilometers (or 5 terameters, as my friend the Metric Maven would say). On its way it swung around Jupiter to get a gravity assist.

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Comments: 40

Jul 13 2015

Supporting the Narrative in an Echochamber

Dunning, commenting on the implications of the Dunning-Kruger effect, wrote:

An ignorant mind is precisely not a spotless, empty vessel, but one that’s filled with the clutter of irrelevant or misleading life experiences, theories, facts, intuitions, strategies, algorithms, heuristics, metaphors, and hunches that regrettably have the look and feel of useful and accurate knowledge.

This seems accurate, but I think the situation is actually worse. Dunning is describing a passive process – people become filled with misinformation and faulty conclusions simply by the flawed nature in which we absorb information from our environment. There is also, however, a much more active process in which people expose themselves selectively and seek out specific misinformation all pointing in the same direction.

This more active process has been called the “echochamber effect.” While this has likely always been a problem, the internet and social media has greatly magnified this phenomenon. It is now easier than ever to surround yourself with the comforting reassurance that all your beliefs are simply and unassailably true.

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Comments: 38

Jul 09 2015

New Zealand Ban on “Trolling”

New Zealand recently passed a law designed to outlaw cyberbullying and give victims a measure of protection. The intent of the bill good, and I agree that this problem may need some creative legislative solutions, but I don’t think this bill was well crafted. It further raises all the thorny issues of free speech.

The Telegraph reports:

The bill was introduced after a public outcry over the horrific “Roast Busters” scandal, in which a group of teenage boys from Auckland was accused of sexually assaulting drunk, under age girls and boasting about the acts on social media.

Public outcry is often a problematic motivation for new legislation. It motivates legislators to do something dramatic quickly, which does not lend itself to nuanced law. Of course this is a horrible crime and people should be outraged. The primary crime, however, was the sexual assault. Boasting about the crime later on social media rubbed salt in the wounds, but it would be a mistake to over-react to that aspect of the crime.

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Comments: 9

Jul 07 2015

Refutation of Creationist Memes

The term “meme” was coined by Richard Dawkins to refer to a unit of thought, behavior, or style that spreads through a culture, as if it were a living thing like a virus. That term has also been co-opted to refer to a social media construct that usually takes the form of a picture with a pithy phrase. Memes (of the social media variety, which is how I will use the term from here out) can be humorous and when well done can convey an important idea in a pithy and witty fashion.

We often will spread skeptical memes on the SGU’s Facebook page, and so I have been paying attention to them more recently. Creating a really good meme is challenging, and often I see memes that don’t quite work. The main challenge is conveying the proper nuance in a short phrase (Twitter carries the same limitation). Meaty skeptical ideas don’t often lend themselves to the number of words that can easily fit on one small picture. But often they can convey a core idea very well.

Of course, people of every ideological persuasion use memes to convey their message. Recently I have come across a number of creationist memes, and like all such nonsense they demonstrate only that creationists really do not understand evolution. Each meme conveys a profound misunderstanding, and it occurred to me that each creationist meme therefore presents a teaching moment. So here they are, with my analysis, a random assortment of creationist memes. If you come across others feel free to link to them in the comments and I will add them to the list.

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Comments: 45

Jul 06 2015

The New Seralini Study

Seralini, author of the infamous study alleging to show increased rates of tumors in rats fed GM food, the one that was retracted by the journal and then later republished in a separate journal, has published another controversial study.

The study, published in PLOSone, looks at the feed that is fed to lab rodents, the kinds used in GM research. They found:

All diets were contaminated with pesticides (1-6 out of 262 measured), heavy metals (2-3 out of 4, mostly lead and cadmium), PCDD/Fs (1-13 out of 17) and PCBs (5-15 out of 18). Out of 22 GMOs tested for, Roundup-tolerant GMOs were the most frequently detected, constituting up to 48% of the diet.

The implication is that all prior research looking at GMO and pesticide toxicity is now called into question because the control rodents would also have been fed a diet that contains some GMO, pesticides, and also heavy metal contaminants. The concept here is valid – control groups need to be proper controls. If you are testing the effects of a pesticide on rats, and the control rats are also getting the pesticide in their food, then the comparison is compromised. This would dilute out the effects of the test substance by increasing the background rate of tumors and other negative outcomes, the “noise” in the study. This would further mean that studies would have to be more powerful (contain more subjects in each group) in order to detect the diluted signal.

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