This week was a bit depressing to be pro science (and by association, pro-vaccine). As I discussed, Katie Couric employed the full false balance fallacy to the extreme to try to “prove” that the Gardasil vaccine was somehow dangerous, based on the anecdotal, and ultimately unscientific, stories. That’s not science. That’s not good journalism. And that goes against real science and real clinical trials which, startlingly, comes to a conclusion that Gardasil is safe and very effective.
Oh, then in response to the intense criticism, Couric doubled-down on the false balance.
I needed something to mock the antivaccination movement, something to remind me that these people are, in general, crackpots of the highest order.
If you weren’t aware, on 4 December 2013, Katie Couric, a fairly popular USA-based journalist with her own eponymous TV talk show, Katie, did a report about Gardasil (formally known as the HPV quadrivalent vaccine and also called Silgard in Europe). Essentially, Couric interviewed several individuals who claim, without any evidence (and lacking any clue about statistical analysis) that Gardasil harmed their children. Couric gave about a minute of time to ONE physician to explain the safety and effectiveness of Gardasil, as opposed to the heartbreaking, but ultimately irrelevant, stories from parents who needed to blame something for what had happened, and chose Gardasil. As opposed to depression, diet soda, bottled water, air pollution, bad TV shows, or that fake butter that the movie theaters use.
As I wrote before, Gardasil is incredibly safe, as shown in massive and well-designed epidemiological studies. It prevents HPV (human papillomavirus) infection, a sexually transmitted disease. And in case you think it’s just some benign virus, HPV is directly responsible for cervical cancer, anal cancer, vulvar cancer, vaginal cancer, oropharyngeal cancer and penile cancer. These are all deadly, disfiguring, and potentially preventable cancers through the use of HPV vaccines.
In other words, Couric, in the ultimate example of false balance–Couric believed that both sides of a scientific “debate” are equivalent in quality of opinion and evidence. But rarely is this true, especially in scientific principles that have been well-studied and supported by a massive amount of evidence. The safety and efficacy of vaccines is supported by the vast consensus of real science. The antivaccination side has no evidence, so it must rely upon logical fallacies and cherry picked data, and lack any real, world-class contingent of scientists who have stepped up to change the consensus with real evidence.
(more…) «Katie Couric doubles down on…»
In 2012, the interwebs exploded because of an article (pdf) published in Food and Chemical Toxicology by Gilles-Eric Séralini et al. that showed health problems in rats fed genetically modified corn which is resistant to the herbicide Roundup. They also found similar health problems in rats fed the herbicide alone (along with non-GM feed). The rodents experienced hormone imbalances, along with more and larger mammary tumors, earlier in life, than rats fed a non-GM diet. The authors claimed that the GM- or pesticide-fed rats also died earlier.
Séralini et al. states this is the first time it has been tested for toxicity throughout a rat’s lifespan even though this type of GM corn accounts for more than half of the US crop.
Séralini’s article might have been an important part of the safety of GMO discourse, except for a few important items. Scientists across the world criticized the study for its bad study design, bad statistics, and overhyping of the results. I personally found the study lacking in basic toxicology methodology, like providing us with dose-response studies, that show us at what level of consumption of the GMO corn would have an effect (if there is one). Of course, with using so few rats to make outrageous conclusions, a dose-response study wouldn’t have been possible.
(more…) «Journal retracts Séralini’s controversial “GMO…»
Most who fear genetically altered food are unaware that nearly all food has been genetically altered via artificial selection
— Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson) March 15, 2013
Yet another renowned scientist explains that genetically engineered crops shouldn’t be feared, since all food has been genetically engineered.
Updated 24 November 2013.
Thirteen years ago, Richard Dawkins, noted secularist, author and evolutionary biologist, wrote an open letter to Prince Charles, noted promoter of pseudoscience and heir apparent to the British throne, about the Prince’s hostility to science. Even though the letter was written more than a decade ago, the salient points still ring true today:
…Sir, I think you may have an exaggerated idea of the natural-ness of ‘traditional’ or ‘organic’ agriculture. Agriculture has always been unnatural. Our species began to depart from our natural hunter-gatherer lifestyle as recently as 10,000 years ago – too short to measure on the evolutionary timescale.
Wheat, be it ever so wholemeal and stoneground, is not a natural food for Homo sapiens. Nor is milk, except for children. Almost every morsel of our food is genetically modified – admittedly by artificial selection not artificial mutation, but the end result is the same. A wheat grain is a genetically modified grass seed, just as a pekinese is a genetically modified wolf. Playing God? We’ve been playing God for centuries!
(more…) «Richard Dawkins talks about GMO…»
Bill Gates, through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) located in Seattle, Washington, is one of the world’s leading charities that brings advanced healthcare (including vaccinations) other advanced technology to underdeveloped countries. As I’ve said before, I am not a hero worshipper, but there is nothing more admirable and moral than a person who has built incredible wealth, and then decides to give it back to the world in a way that cannot be measured monetarily.
Bill and Melinda Gates appear to be genuinely devoted to helping people, especially those who lack access to modern technology and medicine. To that end, they have stated that they will give away about 95% of their wealth through charitable causes.
This has made Bill Gates a target of the antivaccination lunatics. Numerous lies about Gates have become internet memes, from “Gates’ vaccines are population control” (based on a complete misreading of something he said) to Gates’ polio vaccines have paralyzed 47,000 kids in India. I refuted the most egregious lies. And then there’s the postmodernist antivaccine cretin Sayer Ji who invented a whole host of lies about Gates. I debunked those too.
(more…) «Bill Gates, Part 3: now…»
One of the tactics of the GMO (genetically modified organisms, usually crops–some people use the term GM instead) refusers is that “there’s no proof that GMO’s are safe.” Typically, in a debate, the side making the assertion (those that say GMO’s are unsafe) are responsible for the evidence that supports their contention. But, the anti-GMO gang relies upon the Argument from Ignorance, trying to force the argument to “if you can’t prove that they’re safe, they must be unsafe.”
Even though I don’t necessarily like arguing with logical fallacies, I did provide an exhaustive list of high-quality peer-reviewed articles that clearly stated that genetically modified crops are safe. But that’s never enough.
Updated 12 November 2013.
In the world of scientific research, the absolute highest quality evidence are meta reviews, which are methods to contrast and combine results from a wide swath of peer-reviewed studies which may be useful in identifying patterns, sources of disagreement and other relationships. Since meta reviews combine the results from a larger number of studies, they can be more statistically significant. So, if there only was a high quality, peer-reviewed meta review about the safety of GMO foods!?!?
(more…) «Review of 10 years of…»
Updated 6 November 2013
One of the world’s leading sponsors of vaccine research and bringing healthcare (including vaccinations) to underdeveloped countries is the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), founded by Bill & Melinda Gates using their vast Microsoft wealth. I have always favored capitalism, and believe there is no particular moral code associated with accumulating wealth. It is, however, wonderful that they have decided to use their wealth to help humanity.
Because they are strong supporters of vaccines, they have become one of the leading targets of the vaccine denialists who use a bunch of outright lies to attack his good works. These attacks remind me of Ernst’s Law, which states “If you are researching complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) and you are not hated by the CAM world, you’re not doing it right.” For vaccines, I guess we should we create a corollary of the law, “if you are supporting the safety and efficacy of vaccinations for children, and you are not hated by vaccine denialists, you’re not doing it right.” I think I want to call this corollary “Offit’s Law,” named for Paul Offit, a tireless supporter of vaccines who has been the target of lies and hatred, or even “Gate’s Law.”
An vaccine denier, Sayer Ji, whom I have criticized in the past for his anti-science rants about the immune system, has placed the Gates Foundation firmly in his ignorant pseudoscientific crosshairs of criticism. Ji wrote an article, Gates Foundation Funds Surveillance of Anti-Vaccine Groups, which is a bit fear-mongering, a bit of pseudoscience, and a bit of conspiracy theory lunacy. Ji has previously made a completely insane claim that vaccines “subvert evolution”, which was effectively ripped into tiny little pieces and incinerated by Orac a few months ago. Essentially, Ji brings out the Naturalistic Fallacy (he does this over and over with the immune system), a fallacy that presumes that how the world “is” should then be used to state how it “ought” to be. Ji stated that we interfered with “evolution” through the use of vaccinations. Orac disabused Ji of his crackpot beliefs:
Ji’s article is the naturalistic fallacy on megadoses of steroids. To him, science isn’t just subverting Nature (with a capital “N,” again!) but it’s producing vaccines that are allegedly going to permanently alter us to make us no longer “human.” Vaccine scientists and doctors are somehow “callous lack of regard for three billion years of evolution,” as though evolution could never be improved upon. What is medicine, after all, if not interfering with evolution. Antibiotics interfere with evolutionary selection in that they save lives that might otherwise have been lost, allowing reproduction that might never have happened. So does surgery, a whole host of medicines, and a number of other treatments. That’s the idea.
(more…) «Vaccine denialists really hate Bill…»
In spring 2012, I had written a few articles about a mystery neurological ailment that had struck about 20 teenagers at a high school and surrounding area in LeRoy, NY, a small town about 30 minutes from the city of Rochester. They suffered tics that mimicked Tourette syndrome, but was never diagnosed as such. Most of them have recovered, although two new cases have appeared.
Entering the Way-back Machine, let’s see what has happened.
There is no link specifically that I can draw to environmental exposure because there are so many environmental exposures that occurred at the high school.
(more…) «Whatever happened to the LeRoy…»
When Big Pharma develops a new prescription medication, the regulatory authorities, such as the US FDA, set regulatory guidelines for not only the claims made by the company but also for the manufacturing standards. Every ingredient used to manufacture a pill or injectable must be listed in the package insert and must be tested during the three or phases of clinical trials.
In general, if a pharmaceutical company makes any changes to the ingredients, even something as simple as a binder in the pill, it must re-file with the regulatory authorities for clearance to do so. Even if a manufacturer changes equipment or a process, without changing the the ingredients, it is required to file those changes with the FDA, and they may not proceed with the change.
The same is not true of so called “natural health products.” In fact, according to a study published in BMC Medicine, the majority of herbal products on the market contain ingredients that are not listed on the product’s label. Furthermore, these companies (let’s call them Big Herbal) often substitute some of the ingredients with cheaper, untested alternatives and fillers.
(more…) «“Natural” supplements are filled with…»
Scientific skepticism is the noble pursuit and accumulation of evidence, based on the scientific method, which is used to question and doubt claims and assertions. A scientific skeptic will hold the accumulation of evidence as fundamentally critical to the examining of claims. Moreover, a true skeptic does not accept all evidence as being equal in quality, but, in fact, will give more weight to evidence which is derived from the scientific method and less weight to poorly obtained and poorly scrutinized evidence.
In the world of real scientific skepticism, evidence published in a peer-reviewed, high impact factor journal far outweighs evidence taken from other sources. Peer review is the evaluation of a scientific work by one or more people of similar competence (usually in the same field) to the producers of the work. Mostly, the peer review is blinded, in that the reviewers generally don’t know the authors (although it may not be difficult to uncover, especially if the paper is in an esoteric field of science). Peer review constitutes a form of self-policing of science by qualified members of a profession within the field of research. It is through this system of criticism and review that makes many journals, and the articles published within, powerful pieces of evidence in science.
In addition to peer review, there are other ways to ascertain the quality of research in a particular journal. Articles in high quality journals are cited more often because high quality journals just attract the best scientific articles. Higher quality journals employ a more meticulous and exhaustive peer-review.
Although somewhat controversial, journals are ranked using a metric called “impact factor” that essentially expresses numerically how many times an average article in a particular journal is cited by other articles in an index of all other journals in the same general field. The impact factor could range from 0 (no one ever cites it) to some huge number, but the largest is in the 50-70 range. One of the highest impact factor journals is the Annual Review of Immunology, which is traditionally has an impact factor in the 50′s–this would indicate that an average article published in that journal is cited by other medical articles an average of 50 times (an outstanding number).
(more…) «Proliferation of fake peer-review journals»
There is an American group called Homeopaths without Borders (HWB), who claims that it provides humanitarian aid, in the form of homeopathic “medicine”, to devastated areas of the world. The more famous group that does real lifesaving work across the world, Doctors without Borders, are probably too busy, utilizing real evidence-based medicine with real medications, risking their own lives, and performing great service humanity, to be worried that a bunch of pseudoscientific homeopaths stole their noble trademark to push quackery.
HWB is sending their water magicians to Haiti, Guatemala, Dominican Republic, Sri Lanka, and El Salvador, all countries that have suffered so much during the past few years. During their time in Haiti, “the team will be in Port-au-Prince to complete the final session of the Fundamentals Program—a foundational curriculum in homeopathic therapeutics incorporating theoretical and clinical training.” So not only are they providing nonsense, useless, unscientific healthcare to Haiti, they are training new homeopaths there. Haiti needs to train real doctors who use science based medicine, not quack medicine.
One of my favorite science websites is at Science or Not, the author of which, Graham Coghill, claims that “this website will help you separate real science from nonsense that’s masquerading as science.” Most real scientific skeptics have that goal, but Coghill does a great job in formalizing science into a readable, logical format.
Coghill has been doing a couple of series of blog posts, both of which are some of my favorites for science. One is the “Hallmarks of Science,” which endeavors to describe what makes good science. Then there is its evil twin, the “Red Flags of Science,” which points out the indicators of bad science, pseudoscience or plain nonsense.
So with all due respect to Graham Coghill, I’m going to abscond with his Red Flags of Science series, and show how the GMO opponents use bad science to make their case. (Please note, I deleted some Red Flags that didn’t apply to GMO refusers, like magical powers).
Recently, I wrote articles on skepticism and debunking pseudoscience, both of which require large amounts of evidence. And of course, a true scientific skeptic needs to judge the quality of evidence, because individuals who push science denialism often cherry pick seemingly high quality science to support their beliefs.
A good scientific skeptic needs to decipher the science (or pseudoscience) in popular news articles, for example, to determine its validity. We should be critical, if not skeptical, of what is written in these articles to ascertain what is or is not factually scientific. We even need to determine the quality of science from the best to the weakest, so that we can determine the level of authority of the science before we pass it along to others.
With the social media, like Facebook and Twitter, which provides us with data that may not exceed a few words, then it’s even more imperative that we separate the absurd (bananas kill cancer) from the merely misinterpreted (egg yolks are just as bad as smoking).
Wikipedia is one place which can either be an outstanding resource for science or medicine, or it can just a horrible mess with citations to pseudoscience, junk medicine pushers. For example, Wikipedia’s article on Alzheimer’s disease is probably one of the best medical articles in the “encyclopedia”. It is laid out in a logical manner, with an excellent summary, a discussion of causes, pathophysiology, mechanisms, treatments, and other issues. It may not be at the level of a medical review meant for a medical student or researcher, but it would be a very good start for a scientifically inclined college researcher or someone who had a family who was afflicted with the disease.
This is an update to an article published on 23 July 2013.
Vaccine myths are annoying, not just because they are dangerous to the public health, but because they are like the diseases prevented by vaccines, because the myths keep returning to infect the public, just when you’re not watching. It’s bad enough that social media sites (Facebook, Twitter, blogs, Google, reddit) continuously send out this pseudoscientific myths, but it’s the ersatz “news” sites that do the same. They retread old myths as if they are “breaking news”, which requires we skeptics and pro-science writers to jump out like a vaccine trained immune system to thoroughly destroy these antivaccine myths.
I have long ago accepted that there are just ignorant and plainly delusional people who will buy into any pseudoscience that shows up on their radar screen, without utilizing a single neuron for critical analysis. However, I also understand that there are people on the fence about vaccines (or any other issue with a pseudoscience counterargument), who will appreciate a thorough debunking of ignorant lies.
For example, I wrote an article a while ago about some nonsense meme on Facebook that contended that eating ripe bananas cured cancer because the bananas contained a protein called tumor necrosis factor (TNF). It was based on some “Japanese scientific study,” which took significant effort to find. After a critical and thorough reading of the article, I concluded that: the study made no claim that bananas made TNF, AND even if bananas did, you couldn’t ingest enough bananas to get a bioactive dose of TNF, AND even if you could, you wouldn’t absorb any TNF through the digestive tract, AND TNF doesn’t do what the meme writer thought it does (TNF is badly named, and does not directly attack cancers). In other words, the myth lacks any truth, except, maybe that bananas are yellow.
This is by far the most popular article I’ve ever written with probably close to 100,000 page hits. The reason is that every 2-3 weeks, the myth about bananas arises out of the background noise of the internet, people (unknown to me) use my article to debunk the banana myth in the comments section, and the myth slowly dies. But it never really completely dies. It’s only 99% dead. It’s a zombie which keeps coming back to life.
Thus, the best we skeptics can do is keep debunking these social media fables and tall tales, and move along to refuting the next one in line. At least I can save time by not having to write the article again, we can just update with any new information and re-debunk (yes, I have the absolute right to invent words).
(more…) «Polio vaccine does not cause…»
I always get suspicious when someone makes an argument with the statement of “it’s been proven to work”, “the link is proven”, or, alternatively, they state some negative about scientifically supported therapies. Typically, I hear these kinds of statements from the pseudoscience pushing crowd. For example, real science has debunked the “there is a proven link between vaccines and autism,” a common and popular pseudoscientific belief. Or that most alternative medicine (CAM) therapies work based on numerous logical fallacies that suspends reason, and accepts “belief” in the therapy, something that evidence-based medicine just doesn’t do.
So, I decided to put together a rather substantial treatise on science vs. pseudoscience. We’ll explore what exactly makes an idea scientific (and spoiler alert, it isn’t magic), and contrary to real science, what makes an idea “pseudoscientific.” So sit down, grab your favorite reading beverage, because this isn’t going to be a quick internet meme. I intend to show you exactly how pseudoscience, whether it’s creationism, vaccine denialism, alternative medicine, or whatever you want to debunk, lies. Yes, lies.
(more…) «How pseudoscience tries to fool…»
I know I shouldn’t use the conspiracy theory fallacy when talking about the pseudoscience-pushing science deniers, who are the bread and butter of topics for skeptics. But, when I keep observing the same ridiculous and insanely illogical arguments used in the same manner by all of the deniers, I begin to wonder if they don’t get together annually at the International Society of Pseudoscience meeting, usually held in Sedona, Arizona, ground zero of woo. They obviously share their stories, because we hear the same regurgitated stories in different contexts.
The antivaccinationists, creationists, anthropogenic global warming deniers, and whomever else pretends to use science to actually deny science frequently focus on a trope that “science makes mistakes.” And then they produce a list of historical events that “prove” that science is wrong. Of course, this indicates more of a misunderstanding of what is science and the history of science than it is a condemnation of science. But your typical science denier is probably not going to let facts get in the way of maintaining faith in their beliefs. So let’s deconstruct and discredit these “science makes mistakes” tropes.
By the way, in my story, I admit that “science makes mistakes,” so read on.
(more…) «Regarding those mistakes made by…»
I don’t discuss anthropogenic global warming (AGW, or climate change caused by human activities) very often, more just in oft-handed ways, lumping anthropogenic global warming deniers into the whole pseudoscience crowd–antivaccinationists, anti-GMO loudmouths, evolution deniers, HIV/AIDS deniers, and other anti-science fads. To be honest, I was scientifically skeptical about global warming, not because of any political motivation, but because the evidence I reviewed seemed weak at best. But I was guilty of my own confirmation bias, and more than that, I was honestly more interested in other current trends in science than climate change.
Now, I was never a skeptic (kind of improperly used in my case, I really thought I had examined it scientifically) about global warming itself. I observed changes over my long lifetime, including one year in the early 1980′s when ski resorts in Utah were open well into July. And the Great Salt Lake was heading to levels not seen since the ice age. When I was in grad school in New York, it snowed on July 4th. This doesn’t happen much anymore (and it really isn’t evidence of global warming, but it’s always good when my personal anecdotes are supported by good science). Moreover, the real science, the real numbers, showed that the earth was warming up.
(more…) «Science votes for human-caused global…»
It is well accepted observation that when the pseudoscience or anti-science crowd runs out of supporting evidence (usually when it’s thoroughly debunked by scientific skeptics), it has to rely upon the whole range of logical fallacies, errors in reasoning to support a position in an argument or debate. Because scientific skeptics (or if we’re talking about medicine, science based medicine) always demand high quality evidence to support claims, the anti-science and pseudoscience pushing troupes are frequently cherry picking ”peer-reviewed” research to use as their “proof” for their claims.
Worse yet, because they are afflicted by confirmation bias, always looking for evidence to support their beliefs rather than seeing what the evidence supports, these pseudoscience types ignore the vast majority of evidence or tend to misinterpret the evidence. So, when you read some blog post or pseudo-news article about a published scientific article that says GMO’s are dangerous, you need to dig beyond the headlines, and head right to the scientific source to determine what is really being said. And that happened this week.
Scientific American blared a headline that “Genetically Modified Crops Pass Benefits to Weeds,” that states that genetically modified crops might pass certain genetic information to “weeds,” which will then get an unintended biological fitness increase from the passing of engineered genes being passed from the GMO crop to the weeds. They conclude that even though some people are pushing for relaxing of rules about genetically engineered foods, a newly published article supports the need for continued careful evaluation.
(more…) «Anti-GMO horde trumpets new article,…»
Previously, I wrote about how Richard Dawkins claimed he was an African Ape. Fortuitously, I ran across an article in io9 by Annalee Newitz, The last time we redefined what it means to be human. Newitz clarifies the current cladogram, a diagram that shows relationships among organisms, for humans and their closest primate neighbors (from an evolutionary standpoint).
Humans today are the species sapiens, the genus Homo, the subfamily Homininae, the family Hominidae, the order Primates, the class Mammalia, and the kingdom Animalia. There are other classifications, like tribe and subtribe, sub family, and other fine tuning, which has made the taxonomic classification of organisms complex, especially because of the use of Latin names. Moreover, there are a lot of similar sounding taxonomic groups for humans and great ape relatives. But let’s try to make it as clear as possible..