Jan 09 2017

Anti-vaccine Nonsense at Cleveland Clinic

This is what happens when you compromise your academic and professional integrity in order to embrace a popular fad. The Cleveland Clinic, which is historically an excellent medical institution, has the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Center, which is a center of so-called “alternative” medicine.

Such centers are a Trojan horse. They are sold to naïve academics as providing “patient centered” warm and fuzzy symptomatic treatments. Meanwhile they are really centers for pseudoscience and health fraud. They use the respected names of venerable institutions to legitimize nonsense.

The Cleveland Clinic now has to face the PR nightmare of allowing the foxes into the henhouse (actually they built a new henhouse just for the foxes).

On January 6th Dr. Daniel Neides, Medical Director and Chief Operating Officer of the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute, published an anti-vaccine screed on the institution’s blog. The article is full of typical anti-vaccine misinformation, and is a serious embarrassment to the Cleveland Clinic. It will also embolden the anti-vaccine movement, who can point to the article to make vaccines seem controversial and convince more confused parents not to vaccinate their children.

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Comments: 55

Jan 06 2017

Another Child Dies of Medical Neglect

seth-johnsonLast year 7-year-old Seth Johnson died of pancreatitis. His parents, Timothy and Sarah, are now on trial for one count of child neglect.

These are always heartbreaking stories, especially for a parent. Strong and conflicting emotions are stirred – on the one hand I feel anger and resentment toward the parents, who allowed their child to needlessly suffer and die. At the same time I also feel sorry for the parents. There is nothing worse than the death of a child, except feeling responsible for that death yourself. The state can add little to the emotional punishment they must be  already experiencing (although they should try damn hard).

Seeing such parents as victims is not a popular position. It is much easier to see them as villains, even demons. I always strive to see reality in all its complexity, and as a result I often conclude that such parents are some combination of villain and victim. My thoughts also come with the huge caveat that I am getting all my information from the media, and do not have direct access to the medical information or the parent’s story.

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Comments: 145

Jan 05 2017

The Misinformation Wars

As we collectively try to climb out of the smouldering rubble that was “the truth” in 2016 (by which I mean basic intellectual integrity), many people are speculating and trying to wrap their brain around what exactly is happening. Of course, the arbitrary transition to a new calendar year changes nothing. We are still living in the same world that produced the 2016 election.

Many writers have characterized what happened as the “weaponization” of bullshit or misinformation. This is not entirely new, but it did seem to reach new heights, or to cross over some fuzzy threshold to a new level or prominence. The “weaponized” meme is also mainstream; Donna Brazile, for example, is saying that the hacked DNC e-mails were “weaponized” against them.

The two other similar memes that emerged this past year were “post truth” and “fake news.” These were added to older notions of “echochambers” or the fact that many people are living in information bubbles (whether they know it or not).

I think all of these concepts are essentially correct. We are in the midst of a misinformation war (actually many wars on many fronts). Unfortunately, it seems that the side which includes the mainstream media, the experts that provide them with information and analysis, professional journalists and academics, is losing. They are losing primarily because they have not yet adapted to the new battleground – social media. They are like the British fighting in neat rows with their visible red uniforms, while the rebels fire at them concealed behind trees and stone walls.

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Comments: 116

Jan 03 2017

More Evidence for Motivated Reasoning

motivated-reasoning-1A recent neuroscientific study looked at what happens in the brains of subjects when their beliefs were challenged. The study adds a new bit of evidence to our understanding of motivated reasoning.

Before we get to the details of the study, let’s review what we mean by motivated reasoning. Psychological studies have shown that people treat different beliefs differently. Specifically, there is one set of beliefs that are core to a person’s identity and to which they have an emotional attachment. We treat such beliefs differently than all other beliefs.

For most beliefs people actually are quite rational at baseline. We tend to follow a Bayesian approach, meaning that we update our beliefs as new information comes to our attention. If we are told that some historical fact is different than what we remember, we will quickly change our beliefs about that historical fact. Further, the more information we have about something, the more solid our belief is, the more slowly we will change that belief. We don’t just change from one thing to the next, we incorporate the new information with our old information.

This is actually a very scientific approach. I would not easily change my belief that the sun is at the center of our solar system. It would take a profound amount of very reliable information to counter all the solid scientific information on which my current belief is based. If, however, I was told from a reliable source something about George Washington I never heard before, I would accept it much more quickly. This is reasonable, and this is how most people function day-to-day.

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Comments: 54

Jan 02 2017

Are We Ready for a Flu Pandemic?

1918-fluIn 1918-1919 the world suffered its worst flu pandemic, with 20-40 million people dying (the CDC claims as many as 50 million). The pandemic resulted from the sudden emergence of a particularly virulent flu strain. In 2008 scientists reconstructed the exact strain, which was influenza A (H1N1).

The virus spread rapidly throughout the world, mostly through trade routes, but the mass movement of people resulting from World War I was thought to be a key factor as well.

Recently Bill Gates stated that he does not feel the world is ready if a similar flu pandemic struck. His foundation is concerned with global health, so he pays attention to such issues. He cited the recent Ebola and Zika outbreaks as evidence that our current preparedness is inadequate.

What are the chances of another pandemic similar to 1918-19? New strains of virulent viruses emerge all the time. It seems inevitable that a particularly bad one will appear at some point, but this is impossible to predict. The CDC states that it is unlikely the next bad flu pandemic will be H1N1 because since the 1918 flu strains of H1N1 have been circulating, and therefore there is decent immunity in the population. H1N1 is also included in the annual flu vaccine. (By the way, if you did not get your vaccine yet, it’s not too late. Do it now.)

But there are many strains of flu. Bird flu is an influenza A virus that mostly infects birds, but has started to cross over to human infections. There are also other viruses, like the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) virus.

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Comments: 60

Dec 23 2016

Man Living with 10% of His Brain?

hydrocephalus2Here is the title of a science new story from July 2016: A man who lives without 90% of his brain is challenging our concept of ‘consciousness’. This is an excellent example of horrible science news reporting. It is a cautionary tale of what can happen when a reporter does not adequately vet their story with actual experts.

These are the images from the original paper, which was published in 2007. They are quite impressive and I can see how a lay person might misinterpret them. I can see how a journalist might make assumptions about what they are seeing, and not even know enough to question those assumptions and therefore never asked the experts they interviewed the right questions.

In fact the journalist, Fiona MacDonald, got off on an irrelevant tangent about consciousness, even though this case reports has not implications for our understanding of the neurological basis of consciousness.

I was recently reminded of this case, and the bad reporting surrounding it, by a comment left on a previous blog of mine in which the commenter notes:

Furthermore the author noted, rightly that if a model of externalized consciousness was to be tested, we would have to look for anomalies, cases where the brain does not explain the mind. There has been a case recently where a man who retained only 10% of his brain by mass was found to function semi normally with an IQ of 75, a job, a wife and two kids.

So he was offering this case report as an anomaly which calls into question our model of consciousness.

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Comments: 274

Dec 22 2016

Mental Illness and Demonic Possession

A recent article by Emily Korstanje details the story of Nadia, an 18 year old girl from Saudi Arabia who suffered from depression. Her religious parents took her to a faith healer who, through dubious methods involving choking her until she passed out, concluded that her symptoms were the result of demonic possession.

Fortunately Nadia was able to break away from that healer and defy her parents, but she still faces a more difficult challenge – her society.

“They need to separate religion from psychology, especially for us women, who suffer from depression because of our shitty circumstances, or we cannot—and will not—get help,” Nadia sad. “Society also needs to be rid of this of shame toward mental illness and stop saying that people are weak or not perfect believers, or possessed! Spirituality is important but it doesn’t mean that you deny what is really going on because it will only get worse.”

In the past, before science helped us understand things like psychology and neuroscience, it is understandable that prescientific cultures would reach for superstition to explain mental illness and neurological disorders. They had no way of understanding what a seizure was, let alone schizophrenia. So they used what explanations they had at hand and decided that such individuals were possessed by evil spirits, or cursed, or were being punished by god or the gods.

It amazes me, however, that in the 21st century this still occurs. Now, with all the knowledge of modern neuroscience, there is no excuse for confusing a brain disorder with spiritual possession. Further, we do not need to look to third world countries to find example – this is still happening in modern industrialized nations.

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Comments: 78

Dec 20 2016

New Radiation Resistant Metals

radiation-alloysThis is a bit of a wonky technical post, but that is actually a point I want to make. Often I find that the scientific advances that have the most potential get the least coverage, while interesting but incremental advances, or one-off findings, are given broad coverage with sensational headlines. This is an unfortunate artifact of how scientific news is communicated. First, a company’s or institution’s press office will determine if the new study or finding is press-worthy, and if so they will compose a press release. Then journalists and news outlets will decide if it is worth publishing, which usually means – can they spin it as a major breakthrough, creating or solving some “mystery”, a potential cure for some disease, or tie it to some science-fiction technology.

Meanwhile, real advances that are not “sexy” get overlooked. So when I saw this item I thought, this is likely to be one of those advances with huge potential but very little press coverage.

Researchers have figured out how to make metal alloys that are far more resistant to radiation damage than existing alloys. The key is mixing three or more different metals in equal proportions. They compared nickel to nickel-iron, nickel-cobalt-iron, and nickel-cobalt-iron-manganese-chromium. The alloys with three or more metals were 100 times more resistant to radiation damage than the pure nickel.

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Comments: 11

Dec 19 2016

Skeptical Questions Everyone Should Ask

critical-thinkingBecause I am an activist skeptic I am often asked specific questions about how to be a better skeptic. This is obviously a complex question, and I view skepticism (like all knowledge) as a journey not a destination. I am still trying to work out how to be a better skeptic.

One recent question, however, took a great approach to the issue of practical skepticism – what questions should a skeptic ask themselves when confronted with a news item? Here is my process:

1 – How plausible is the claim?

This is admittedly a tricky question that requires a lot of judgment. The risk is that you will think any claim that already aligns with your beliefs as being plausible and anything that contradicts them as being implausible. This is not as bad as it sounds, however, if your current beliefs are based on logic and evidence. To the extent that your beliefs (by which I mean the model of reality that you construct in your head) are based on ideology and subjective perspective, the notion of plausibility can be self-fulfilling.

I say “can be” because it does not have to be. This is partly because this first question regarding plausibility is the first question, not the only question. You should not reject implausible claims out of hand. The purpose of evaluating plausibility is to determine the appropriate bar of evidence needed to accept the claim. This is essentially, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

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Comments: 13

Dec 16 2016

Facebook Takes On Fake News

facebook1Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has announced that his platform is now going to have third parties review news stories and news sources and label what they think is “fake news.” Facebook will then demote those stories in their news feed.

They have tapped Snopes, Factcheck.org, ABC News, and PolitiFact to be their third-party reviewers.

While this move has been controversial, I think it’s a fantastic idea, although of course not without its risk.

In the last decade we have been moving away from traditional edited sources of news to social media, which blends news and opinion and has essentially removed any editorial barriers. This has been a boon to content producers, with many upsides. The barrier to sharing your information or opinions with the world has essentially been removed. This has led to many great things, like scientists sharing their field of expertise with the public.

There is also somewhat of a meritocracy, with quality writers rising in popularity. People have access to much more information and many more viewpoints.

However, the barrier has also been removed for spreading misinformation. Content creators and websites have sprung up catering to every extreme ideology. This is nothing new but in the past marginalized ideas had marginalized distributions. This too was a double-edged sword – it kept out a lot of nonsense, but also made it difficult (but not impossible) for minority but legitimate opinions to be heard. Without barriers, every voice can potentially be heard, but it became more difficult to distinguish real news from fake news, mainstream from fringe opinions, facts from misinformation, and quality journalism from ideological hack jobs.

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Comments: 98

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