Archive for November, 2010

Nov 08 2010

Ghost Hunting Science vs Pseudoscience

Published by under Skepticism

I was recently pointed to a conversation taking place in the Northern Iowan – a student newspaper of the University of Northern Iowa. The debate is about whether ghost-hunting is science or pseudoscience. The first salvo was apparently fired by Michael Dippold, who took the skeptical position. There is also a response by Peter Allen, defending the science of paranormal investigation. I hope these two students won’t mind me jumping in and taking them to school a bit.

Michael does a decent job of spelling out the skeptical position, but I think he misses (or at least insufficiently emphasizes) a critical point, and not surprisingly Peter completely misses this vital point. If I had to point to one aspect of so-called ghost hunting that marks it as pseudoscience it is this – they don’t carry out any actual hypothesis testing. Michael comes closest to this point with this statement:

Here is the problem with what they are doing: it’s not science. There’s not a single shred of evidence to suggest that ghosts exist, or that they can be identified by cold spots. Why are ghosts cold? Why do they never seem to show up in visible light, but infrared cameras always find them? Why can you never hear them speaking, but finding them in garbled audio (what they call electronic voice phenomenon or EVP) is absurdly common? The answer is that it’s easier to find whatever you’re looking for in distorted or unclear video and sound. This is a profession that thrives on false positives.

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Nov 05 2010

Gloating About Vaccine Fears

Occasionally anti-vaccine activists gloat over statistics that show a decrease (any decrease) in vaccine uptake. It is often a childish victory dance, but more importantly is displays their true anti-vaccine motives.

The most recent example of this is Mike Adams at Natural News, who writes:

Vaccination rates among children insured by commercial health insurance plans have dropped four percent between 2008 and 2009, says a new report by the National Committee for Quality Assurance. In its annual State of Health Care Quality report, the organization revealed that vaccine rates are falling sharply among high-education families.

First, before we start to analyze the significance of these numbers (Adams leaps into this analysis with the zeal of a propagandist), let’s see what they actually are. Business Week reports:
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Nov 04 2010

Germ Theory Denial

At the more extreme end of the anti-vaccine culture is the denial that vaccines work at all, and even further beyond that is germ theory denial. Although I don’t have any statistics, it is my impression that most anti-vaxers do not go that far, but a fair number of them do. Most notably is Bill Maher, who flirts with the germ theory denial and denial of vaccine efficacy. Of course, if germs don’t cause disease, then vaccine are useless. Even if they do, an anti-vaxer might be tempted to claim that vaccines do not work, despite the overwhelming evidence that they do.

That an educated person in a 21st century industrialized nation could deny such a basic fact of science deserves an explanation. I think it is enough to say that it is a triumph of ideology over reason. We see this also in evolution denial, HIV denial, even holocaust denial. But more than ideology, It seems to also flow from an intolerance to complexity and ambiguity. We like to have our ideology pure, unsullied by moral or factual complexity. Humans generally abhor gray zones.

So if one thinks that vaccines are risky and can cause serious side effects it may be easier to also believe that they do not work, rather than have to wrestle with the notion that there are risks and benefits that need to be balanced. Not everyone goes down this rabbit hole, but many do.

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Nov 02 2010

The Chicken Pox Story

Prior to 1995 about 95% of the US population would get chicken pox by age 18. It was essentially a rite of passage, and almost everyone had their pox scar to show for it. In 1995 a chicken pox vaccine was introduced, and about 60% of children receive the vaccine. This has dramatically decreased the rate of chicken pox, with some interesting results.

Some Background on Chicken Pox

Chicken pox is caused by the Varicella zoster virus (VZV), a member of the herpes family of viruses. It causes a primary infection which results in a day or two of fever and malaise followed by a week of a macular papular rash – pustules filled with fluid. In children the disease is commonly mild, but not without complications. According to a review by Dr. Lichenstein:

Varicella also accounts for significant morbidity (4000 hospitalizations per year) and mortality (50-100 deaths per year) in otherwise healthy children; moreover, the annual cost of chickenpox has been estimated at $400 million in medical costs and lost wages in the past.

In immunocompromised children, such as those with leukemia, mortality rates from varicella have ranged from 7-28%. The case-fatality rate in the general population is 6.7 case per 100,000.

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Nov 01 2010

Joseph Mercola – Misinformation and Fear Mongering About Vaccines

Joseph Mercola, along with Rosemary Fischer, are promoting vaccine awareness week this week, Nov 1-7. David Gorski, who edits Science-Based Medicine with me, thought it would be a good idea to go along with this and participate fully in vaccine awareness week. So all week we will be focusing on vaccine issues, and doing our best to counter any misinformation.

Mercola, who runs a highly commercialized website, chock full of  health misinformation and anti-SBM propaganda, has started off the week with a broadside against the flu vaccine in an article titled: “New Proof that This Common Medical Treatment is Unnecessary and Ineffective”. He gives a Gish Gallop of error and misdirection – far more bits of falsehood than I have time to counter here. That’s the point of the Gish Gallop, it is far easier to create a misconception than it is to correct it. So if you throw enough mud at a topic you can overwhelm any attempt to defend accurate information, and leave your audience with the uneasy feeling that something must be wrong. In the case of Duane Gish his target was the science of evolution. With Mercola it is accurate health information.

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