Feb 16 2018

More Victims of Alternative Cancer Treatments

Every doctor who treats cancer patients can tell you stories of patients who present with cancers too advanced to treat because they were spending their time pursuing alternative treatments. This has also been studied – last year a Yale team published a study showing higher rates of death among cancer patients who choose alternative treatments.

There is now a recent story of a YouTuber who produced videos claiming that a vegan diet and prayer cured her stage 4 cancer, except now she has died from her cancer. Of course, I am sad for her death and that the treatments she sought at the end were not enough to save her. It’s likely that everyone knows someone affected by cancer – it is a scary and often tragic disease. At the same time, we can’t miss the lessons in this story. It is so typical it can serve as an archetype.

What typically happens is that when some people are diagnosed with cancer they search for any possible salvation from their situation. That is understandable. Often there is an initial treatment, such as removal of a solid tumor, or shrinking the tumor with drugs. Some patients may also seek additional intervention, such as alternative treatments or faith healing. At that point they are in the honeymoon phase of the illness – no matter what their ultimate prognosis, their symptoms were likely improved by the initial treatment. They can imagine that they are cured. This is usually the point at which they claim that whatever alternative or faith-based treatment they underwent healed them.

Depending on the type of cancer, some of these patients may have been essentially cured by their initial surgery or treatment. For those who weren’t, a recurrence of symptoms is inevitable. We then may or may not hear about them when the cancer returns and leads to their death.

Continue Reading »

Comments: 6

Feb 15 2018

The Neuroscience of Virtual Reality

A couple months ago I received my first virtual reality (VR) headset, and have been experimenting with various games and apps since. (Here is my initial review.) As a neuroscientist, it is a fascinating demonstration of how our brains construct our experience of reality.

What I and everyone who has used my gear has experienced is surprise at how visceral VR can be. It’s just a big video, right, so why do our lizard brains react so strongly? The most dramatic example is an app called “The Plank Experience”. In it you take an elevator up to a high floor in a skyscraper. The door opens to reveal a plank going out over the street far below. Everyone so far is frozen at the moment the doors open and they see the chasm below them. Some can walk out onto the virtual plank, but most people hesitate and at least one person bailed and would not do it.

What is interesting is that when I stepped out onto the plank, I completely 100% knew that I was standing on the carpet in my office, totally safe and at no peril at all. However, the part of my brain that knew I was safe was in conflict with a deeper and more primitive part of my brain that was screaming, “Danger, danger.”  It took an effort of will to overcome the fear, but I could not make the fear go away.

Let me describe one other part of the VR experience and then I’ll discuss what is going on neurologically. Motion sickness has been a major challenge for VR. All of the games and apps I have used so far have an option (usually the default) where if you have to move your character in the VR world you do it by teleporting. You use the control to place an X on the floor where you want to go, and then you are instantly in that location. This type of movement does not produce any motion sickness.

Continue Reading »

Comments: 15

Feb 13 2018

New California Initiative – Crank Magnetism in Action

Being involved in skeptical activism for over two decades does provide some perspective. One phenomenon I have noticed is that most pseudosciences and weird belief systems are, at their core, the same. Sure, the details vary, but the underlying errors in logic and thinking are the same. Essentially people make the same mistakes over and over again.

This, in fact, was the original motivation for developing a list of common logical fallacies. We kept encountering the same poor logic time and again and wanted to address the underlying cognitive errors. This is why scientific skepticism is so heavily involved with metacognition – thinking about thinking. There are thousands of fake medical claims out there, for example. Debunking every one is an endless game of whack-a-mole. Better to understand and address the underlying flaw in logic and method that leads to all the medical nonsense.

More recently this phenomenon has been dubbed, “Crank magnetism.” This is the closely related notion that people who believe on type of pseudoscience tend to believe multiple types – they tend to attract each other. The cause of this seems obvious – if your method is flawed, you will achieve the same flawed results over and over.

There may also be different flavors of crank magnetism, although there is a lot of overlap also. For example, there are conspiracy theorists who believe every conspiracy, there are spiritual true-believers who are prone to believing anything mystical, and there are “nature is best” fanatics who are vulnerable to marketing anything as “natural” and fearmongering about “the chemikilz.”

Continue Reading »

Comments: 5

Feb 12 2018

Significant but Irrelevant – Study on Correcting False Information

A study from a few months ago is making the rounds due to recent write ups in the media, including Scientific American. The SA titles reads: “Cognitive Ability and Vulnerability to Fake News: Researchers identify a major risk factor for pernicious effects of misinformation.”

The study itself is: ‘Fake news’: Incorrect, but hard to correct. The role of cognitive ability on the impact of false information on social impressions. In the paper the authors conclude:

“The current study shows that the influence of incorrect information cannot simply be undone by pointing out that this information was incorrect, and that the nature of its lingering influence is dependent on an individual’s level of cognitive ability.”

So it is understandable that reporters took that away as the bottom line. In fact, in an interview for another news report on the finding one of the authors is quoted:

“Our study suggests that, for individuals with lower levels of cognitive ability, the influence of fake news cannot simply be undone by pointing out that this news was fake,” De keersmaecker said. “This finding leads to the question, can the impact of fake news can be undone at all, and what would be the best strategy?”

The problem is, I don’t think this is what the study is saying at all. I think this is a great example of confusing statistically significant with clinically significant. It is another manifestation of over-reliance on p-values, and insufficient weight given to effect size.

Continue Reading »

Comments: 19

Feb 09 2018

Ontario College Plans Program in Homeopathy

Here we go again.

If you are in a decision-making position at an institution of higher learning than you have a responsibility to understand and protect the academic reputation of that institution. Further, such institutions (many of which, as in this case, are publicly funded) have a responsibility to society, to promote academic standards and legitimacy. At the very least such institutions should not be promoting pseudoscience, or dressing up any nonsense as if it were real.

Georgian College in Ontario has approved funds and plans to open a program that will teach homeopathy as if it is real medicine. Teaching any pseudoscience is an outrage, but when it is medical pseudoscience there is also arguably another layer of malfeasance because the connection to real harm is more direct.

I know this is old territory here, but for review: Homeopathy is a prescientific philosophy-based system based on magical thinking. Its core ideas were never valid, and have never been supported by science. Essentially, homeopathy uses fanciful treatments that are based on silly ideas, such as the personality of the patient, but also “sympathetic magic.” The belief is that homeopathic remedies contain the magical essence of symptoms and can be used to cure those same symptoms.

Then, doubling down on the idea of magical essence, all actual substances are diluted out of existence, so that only the essence remains. Therefore, in reality, only water remains. Homeopathy is literally treating people with magic water created with rituals resembling witchcraft, and without the tiniest bit of scientific legitimacy.

Continue Reading »

Comments: 15

Feb 08 2018

Did a Comet Kill the Mammoths

Between 12,800 to 11,500 bp (before present) there was a cold period in North America called the Younger Dryas – named after the dryas flower whose pollen is a good marker for such cold periods. During this time the megafauna of North America, including the Mammoth, largely died out. Along with them went the Clovis culture – a big game hunting culture with distinctive stone points.

What caused this period of climate change and mass extinction?

This is a genuine scientific controversy. One group of scientists believe that the melting glaciers dumped fresh water into the northern Atlantic, temporarily shutting down the ocean currents that bring warm water to North America. Another group think that a comet impact is to blame.

Continue Reading »

Comments: 23

Feb 06 2018

Mindfulness No Better Than Watching TV

A recent systematic review and meta-analysis of the effects of mindfulness meditation on prosocial behavior found, essentially, that there is no evidence that it works. I find these results entirely unsurprising, and they yet again highlight the need for rigorous research before concluding that a phenomenon is real.

As I discussed recently on SBM, mindfulness meditation is the practice of sitting quietly, focusing inward and on the present, and avoiding mind wandering or daydreaming. The recent review I discussed on SBM found that the research into mindfulness, however, does not use a uniform or operationalized definition. That is critical to good science – you need to carefully define something before you can do research on it.

It is especially important to specifically define a concept in order to do research into the question of whether or not the phenomenon is real. If your question is, “Does X exist,” you better have a very specific definition of what X is. Otherwise it is easy to misinterpret the evidence, or to wiggle out of evidence that X does not exist.

The best example of this in medicine is acupuncture. Acupuncture is defined as sticking thin needles into acupuncture points – except when research shows that it does not matter where or even if you stick the needles, then acupuncture can be something else, which is vaguely defined.

Continue Reading »

Comments: 121

Feb 05 2018

Neuro-Quantum Entanglement Pseudoscience

On the Canadian Entrepreneur show, Dragon’s Den, the dragons were given a demonstration of a clip (that’s right, a small metal clip like you would use to hold papers together or put in your hair) that the creator claimed would improve your balance, strength, and health through the power of “quantum entanglement.” The clips, called Neuro Connect, were “developed” by a chiropractor and his partner. The Dragons fell for it, amazed by the demonstrations, and invested $100,000 for a 30% share.

The show aired, giving a huge boost to the company’s sales. However, the way the show works, even when the Dragons make a deal on camera, the deal is contingent on them doing due diligence for confirmation. When they did they found that there were serious scientific objections to the claims being made by company selling the clips, NeuroReset Inc. The deal was off.

But this did not stop the show from airing. The public did not get the benefit of their due diligence – they protected themselves, but completely threw their audience under the snake oil bus.  Canadian news outlet CBC contacted the producer to get their response:

Continue Reading »

Comments: 21

Feb 02 2018

Carbon Capture

Hopefully it’s not news to you that the Earth is warming due to human release of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. A number of studies have assessed the scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming (AGW), with results clustering around 97%. Overwhelmingly, most climate scientists have looked at the data and concluded that AGW is happening.

Climate scientists have gone beyond just establishing that AGW is happening. They are trying to quantify it and project the trend lines into the future. This type of effort is always fraught with uncertainty, with the error bars increasing with greater time into the future. However, we can take a 95% confidence interval and make reasonable extrapolations of what is likely to happen.

Recognizing this uncertainty, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has concluded that we should keep post-industrial warming to less than two degrees Celcius if we want to avoid serious effects of climate change. Given that as the goal, they can then determine how much more carbon would need to be released to cause this amount of warming. This can be used to determine how much we need to decrease future carbon emissions.

Continue Reading »

Comments: 61

Feb 01 2018

A Case of Brain Death

The New Yorker magazine’s latest issue features an article about the sad story of Jahi McMath. Jahi was a 13 year old girl who four years ago underwent a routine tonsillectomy to treat severe snoring and breathing problems. Unfortunately the surgery was complicated by severe bleeding post-op, leading eventually to a cardiac arrest. After a sustained effort at resuscitation the doctors did manage to get her heart working, but by that time her brain was severely damaged by lack of oxygen. She was declared clinically brain dead.

This is not where the story ends, however. Since then the family has refused to accept the diagnosis of brain death, prompting a prolonged conflict with the hospital. Eventually Jahi was removed by the family to an undisclosed hospital in New Jersey, and ultimately discharged to home care, where she remains.

I have had several questions about the story, and I will try to add some insight, with the caveat that I have no direct knowledge of the medical facts of the case beyond what is reported in the New Yorker article and elsewhere. I have not examined her, spoken directly to anyone involved in her care, or reviewed medical records. But there is a lot of information in the public domain and I can speak to that information, as far as it is accurate.

There are several layers to this story. There is a legal layer, as the family is suing the hospital for malpractice. I will not address that aspect of the case. There is the neurological layer – what is brain death and is this girl dead? There is also a personal and cultural layer here in terms of the family’s reaction. Let me start with some thoughts on this.

Continue Reading »

Comments: 34

Next »