Jul 12 2016

Vitamin Supplements in Pregnancy

vitamins pregnancyFor a moment, imagine that you did not read the title of this article. What if I told you that a drug manufacturer was trying to get the public to use more of their drug, arguing it was necessary when the evidence shows that it isn’t? One trick that they use is to conduct studies in developing countries with a sicker population, and then apply that data to the developed world.

Even in the face of a thorough expert review of the published evidence, that concludes that the public is overusing their product and wasting money, the drug company argues that people still need their drug “just in case.”

Of course, in such a case, there would be cries of “Big Pharma” and the company would be rightly criticized for deceptive marketing and pushing their drug despite the published evidence.

For some reason, when the “drug” is a multivitamin, many people have a different reaction.

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Jul 11 2016

Former FDA Directors Criticize Supplement Regulation

fda1Recently six former directors of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) met in Aspen to talk about the FDA. According to reports much of their criticism for their former agency was focused on lax regulations for supplements.

I, too, have been a consistent critic of how supplement are regulated in the US and elsewhere. Currently the regulation is determines by the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA). This law passed while David Kessler was commissioner of the FDA, a law he vigorous opposed.

The Atlantic reports:

Jane Henney, commissioner from 1998 to 2001, recalled that the DSHEA law actually passed in the wake of the FDA “really trying to get their arms around stronger regulatory authority with dietary supplements.” This attempt at requiring supplement producers to guarantee the quality and safety of their product was countered by one of the most intense lobbying campaigns in history, in which TV commercials warned citizens that the government was coming for their vitamins. “I believe that the amount the Congress heard about this whole issue was greater than what they received about the Vietnam war,” she said. ‘I mean, it was tremendous.”

By all accounts this was a clear case of an industry lobbying the government in order to pass regulation friendly to industry and against the interests of the public. They were successful for a few reasons.

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Jul 08 2016

Should We Ban Homeopathy for Animals?

homeopathy-veterinarianYes. Yes we should.

This is an interesting idea I had not previously considered. Danny Chambers is a UK veterinarian from Devon who started a Change.org petition to ban the veterinary use of homeopathy in the UK. He has 1,000 signatures from UK vets so far (out of the 22,000 total UK vets).

Chambers said:

“We think vets these days should be offering 21st Century medicine,” he told BBC News.

“It’s been shown that homeopathy doesn’t work, so it probably shouldn’t be offered any more even if it is offered with good intentions.”

It is absolutely clear that homeopathy is worthless. This is among the most solid conclusions in all of medical science. First, there is no possible way according to our current understanding of physics, chemistry, and physiology that homeopathic potions can have any biological effect. It’s not just unknown – we have very good reasons to conclude that homeopathy cannot work (follow the link above for more details if you are unfamiliar with these reasons).

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Jul 07 2016

Kubrick and the Moon Landing Hoax Conspiracy

One of the silliest grand conspiracy theories is that the US faked the Apollo moon landings. Moon landing hoaxers engage in a combination of anomaly hunting and the argument from personal incredulity or ignorance. They engage in an elaborate exercise in JAQing off (just asking questions), like, “why are there no stars in the background of pictures,” and “why does the flag wave if there is no air?”

They have no positive evidence for a conspiracy, just a wild theory and completely unimpressive anomalies that have all been easily and adequately explained. They also ignore gaping holes in their theory. How could NASA maintain this 50-year cover up when scientists around the world, including in competitor nations, could easily reveal it?

Some moon hoaxers engage in a related theory, that filmmaker Stanley Kubrick was the one who filmed the fake moon landing footage for NASA. It is not uncommon for such theories to aggregate around famous people. Otherwise it is not clear why they would chose Kubrick and not a struggling director desperate for cash who could be conveniently eliminated when the task was done.

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Jul 05 2016

A Psychiatrist Falls for Exorcism

demon_1John Mack was a Harvard psychiatrist who famously fell for his patient’s own delusions. He came to believe that some of his patients were actually abducted by aliens. He was never able to provide any compelling evidence of this, just their testimony. Despite being a professional in mental health, he lacked the skeptical skill set necessary to see his errors.

We now have another very similar case – a Yale trained psychiatrist, Richard Gallagher, who has fallen for his patients delusions that they are possessed by demons. His editorial in the Washington Post is stunning for its utter lack of skeptical awareness.

I am sometimes questioned by well-meaning but confused scientists who do not understand the role that scientific skepticism plays in society. Isn’t science itself enough? Aren’t all scientists skeptical, or at least they should be?

What they miss is that skepticism is a real and deep intellectual skill set that works with science. It includes specialized knowledge that is not necessarily acquired during scientific training. There are frequent examples of this, and Gallagher’s article is now a prime example as well. He hits almost every true-believer trope there is. Ironically he has created a classic case study in the need for scientific skepticism.

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Jul 01 2016

TIME Gets It Wrong on Acupuncture

AcupunctureA recent Time Magazine article tries to answer the question: Does Acupunture Work? Their answer:

For certain conditions—particularly pain—there’s evidence it works. Exactly how it works is an open question.

This answer is wrong. Granted, this is a deceptively complex question and there is a tremendous amount of authoritative misinformation out there, so it is hard to blame a journalist for getting this one wrong.

Perhaps the biggest pitfall in science journalism is the problem of outlier or non-representative experts. A journalist talks to someone who has appropriate credentials, but whose opinion on a topic is either a minority opinion, or just one side of a legitimate controversy. The journalist then mistakes this one person’s opinion for the consensus scientific opinion.

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Jun 30 2016

Mummies and Cancer

egyptian-mummy-3Often there are several layers to my skeptical articles – there is the science story itself, and then there is the reporting of the science and the underlying neuropsychological factors that led to the disconnect between the two.

Here we have another classic example, surrounding the claim that cancer (and sometimes extended to other “modern” diseases) were rare in pre-industrial societies based on evidence from mummies.

The Narrative

The psychological and media story here is that people tend to organize their knowledge around thematic narratives (which I am doing right here – so meta). We like stories, especially stories that have meaning, and especially when that meaning is emotionally satisfying or surprising in some way.

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Jun 28 2016

Caffeine and Sleep

caffeine-chemical-structureCaffeine is a drug. I think most people know that, but perhaps they don’t really think about it. Caffeine is essentially a legal unregulated drug (much like alcohol and nicotine, but with no age restriction).

Coffee, tea, cola, and chocolate are all common sources of caffeine. Many people use this drug on a regular basis, often daily. They become addicted to this drug, and suffer withdrawal symptoms when they don’t take their regular dose. If caffeine were not readily available in commonly consumed food and drink, and say it were being introduced as a new drug, I wonder how it would be viewed and regulated.

A new study looks at the effects of caffeine on mental performance in those who are sleep deprived (a common application). Caffeine is a stimulant, it therefore does increase alertness and mental function. However, like all stimulants, its effects are a double-edged sword.

The study looked involved only 48 subjects, and had them restricted to 5 hours of sleep per night. Half were then given caffeine at 8 am and 12 noon while the other half were given placebos. For the first three days those taking caffeine performed better on mental tasks than those getting placebo. On days four and five, however, there was no difference.

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Jun 27 2016

Senate Passes GMO Labeling Compromise

“You’re unhappy. I’m unhappy too. Have you heard of Henry Clay? He was the Great Compromiser. A good compromise is when both parties are dissatisfied, and I think that’s what we have here.”

– Larry DavidGMO_labeling-thumb

Senate Democrats and Republicans have reached a compromise on the issue of mandatory GMO labels. I am not happy with the outcome, but it could have been worse. Apparently pro-labeling advocates are unhappy too.

Last year the House passed a bill that would preempt mandatory labels. That bill stated:

(Sec. 101) This bill amends the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to require the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to continue the voluntary consultation process established under the FDA’s “Statement of Policy: Foods Derived from New Plant Varieties.” In that process, the FDA evaluates a scientific and regulatory assessment provided by the developer of a food produced from, containing, or consisting of a plant that is a genetically engineered organism (GMO).

The FDA may require a GMO food to have a label that informs consumers of a material difference between the GMO food and a comparable food if the disclosure is necessary to protect public health and safety or to prevent the label from being false or misleading. The use of a GMO does not, by itself, constitute a material difference.

This was a reasonable bill, which acknowledges that the way a food is produced saying nothing directly about the safety or other properties of the end product.  A GMO can be perfectly safe, and a non-GMO can be unsafe.

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Comments: 86

Jun 24 2016

Autonomous Cars Sacrificing Their Passengers

AVsI wrote last year about one aspect of autonomous cars (cars that are capable of driving themselves – autoautos, perhaps) that you might not think of right away but becomes obvious once pointed out: the cars will have to have an algorithm to determine what they do in an emergency situation.

For example, let’s say you are traveling down a road at 40mph and a group of people step out onto the road. The car’s computer calculates that it does not have enough space to come to a stop, so its only option to avoiding hitting the pedestrians is to swerve to the side, but there are obstacles on both sides and therefore swerving will result in a crash which might kill you. What should the car be programmed to do in this situation?

A recent series of surveys explores public opinion about autonomous vehicles (AVs).

To simplify the matter a bit, we can refer to such cars as utilitarian, meaning that their algorithms are designed to minimize the total loss of life without giving priority to the car’s own passengers. You can imagine a number of specific scenarios, but that is the essence of the issue. Should the car minimize risk to its passengers, or to all people equally regardless of their relative position to the car (pedestrian or passenger in another vehicle)?

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