Skeptical Raptor's Blog hunting pseudoscience in the internet jungle

No more “debates” about GMO safety–thanks to trillions of data points

GMO-protestAs I’ve written a few hundred times before, there’s really no such thing as a “debate” in science, at least in the sense that two sides argue in front of the public, and then there is vote on who is “right” or “wrong.” All that matters in science is the quantity and quality of evidence, that’s it. Yes, sometimes scientists do argue about evidence, but that’s usually done in peer reviewed articles, notes, and other forms of communication. It is mostly civil. And eventually, the evidence drives to a consensus.

Only to the public is there a delusion that there are debates on science. You might think there are debates about anthropogenic global warming, evolution, vaccines, HIV/AIDS, and GMO/biotechnology, but there really isn’t. Scientists aren’t sitting in bars across the world throwing bottles of beer at each other because everyone is divided between pro and anti-GMO. Because that’s just plainly not happening.

When I read that 97% of climate scientists support the fact of global warming or that 99.4% of natural scientists agree with the fact of evolution, it implies that there’s some sort of vote. But if there were, it would be, what we call in US elections, a landslide. But in reality, scientists come to a consensus about broad principles over time, and that is based on published evidence, not logical fallacies or bad data.

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Update to the LeRoy (NY) teenagers’ mystery neurological illnesses

oatka-creek-leroy-nyOver the past couple of years, I had written a few articles about a mystery neurological ailment that had struck about 20 teenagers, most of whom were students in high school at that time in LeRoy, NY, a small town about 30 minutes from the city of Rochester. The teens suffered tics and other neurological symptoms that seemed to mimick Tourette syndrome, but was never diagnosed as such.

None of the teens had ever exhibited other symptoms of a neurological deficit, and most of them have subsequently recovered. Two new cases appeared in 2013, but none since.

Numerous individuals, including officials of the Monroe County and New York State Departments of Health, attorneys, antivaccination cultists, and others whose speculation ran from useful to outright delusional.  Many individuals who “diagnosed” the teens without actually ever meeting them (proper diagnosis of neurodevelopment disorders requires one on one assessment, not the famous “let’s diagnose medicine over the internet).
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GMO foods cause cancer–pseudoscience says it’s so

Let’s make something clear right here, at the beginning of the article–there is a vast amount of legitimate scientific literature that describes evidence that GMO crops are safe to both human health and the environment.

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.

Last year, a team of Italian researchers published one such meta review of GMO studies in a peer-reviewed, high impact factor journal, Critical Review of Biotechnology (pdf). The authors collected and evaluated 1,783 research papers, reviews, relevant opinions, and reports published between 2002 and 2012, a comprehensive process that took over 12 months to complete. The review covered all aspects of GM crop safety, from how the crops interact with the environment to how they could potentially affect the humans and animals who consume them. Their conclusion, even in science-speak, could not be clearer:

The scientific research conducted so far has not detected any significant hazards directly connected with the use of GE crops.

cancer-gmo-flakes-kellogs

The EU, which has shown some resistance to GMO crops, has spent over €300 million on GMO research over the last 20 years. Their 2010 report on GMO, which summarized the previous decade of research (pdf), concluded that:

It follows up previous publications on EU-funded research on GMO safety. Over the last 25 years, more than 500 independent research groups have been involved in such research.

According to the projects’ results, there is, as of today, no scientific evidence associating GMOs with higher risks for the environment or for food and feed safety than conventional plants and organisms.

Remember, scientific consensus is not based on debate or arguing. Yes, the lone voice pushing new ideas or fighting a dogma should be given a pulpit to share their evidence. And that’s the key point, evidence matters, dramatic beliefs do not. If someone is going to state that GMO’s are unsafe, then they need to bring evidence, published in real journals, that carry the same weight as the thousands of articles that say “GMO’s are safe.” Just like the climate change deniers, who claim there’s a scientific debate, but have never brought the quality and quantity of evidence of the climate change supporters, the anti-GMO crowd uses the same exact tactics–screaming and yelling about the dangers of GMOs using very bad science.

And right now, the scientific consensus regarding GMO’s is solid–they are safe.

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Quashing the hollow “polio vaccine causes cancer” myth

The interesting thing about social media (Facebook, Twitter, blogs, Google, reddit) is that it’s fairly easy to push pseudoscientific beliefs. The first problem is that many people read the headlines, and never the underlying discussion. If it can be said in 140 characters, or a misleading infographic, many individuals will share that across the internet as a “fact”. So, if you see an claim that “Polio vaccines infected 98 million Americans with a cancer virus,” many people will immediately see that an accept it without much criticism.

Of course, this leads to a second problem. To refute this claim takes a lot more than 140 characters. The refutation is often complex, nuanced and highly scientific, and may take 2000 words or more to blast the claim into orbit. It’s highly emotional to claim a vaccine can cause cancer. On the other hand, to say it is not isn’t emotional–it’s coldly logical. And takes a lot of words.

Fighting zombie memes with evidence from the CDC.

Fighting zombie memes with evidence from the CDC.

And the third problem is that is that social media fallacies have multiple lives, so when someone reads one of these memes a year from now, they think “yeah, this is great information”, and pass it along as if it’s the Truth. Killing zombie memes are just as difficult as killing zombies in real life, or at least, on a TV show. Debunking these zombie memes is a full-time job. And, once it’s been debunked, we move back to the first problem again, again, and again.

Thus, the best we skeptics can do is keep discrediting these social media fables and tall tales, and move along to refuting the next one in line. I wrote about this topic over a year ago, but now I have to refresh it, just to make sure someone who Googles “polio vaccine cancer” has my article near the top of their list of Google hits. 
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Richard Dawkins says he’s an African ape–yes we are.

Whenever I read statements from the anti-evolution/creationist crowd, I often wonder if they’re satisfied with their intellect and knowledge.  Their level of denialism is so high that they cannot even get basic science right.  In Vasko Kohlmayer’s Washington Times article, Is Richard Dawkins an ape?, decides to deny most basic biological knowledge just to make some point that humans are somehow “better” than an ape, and use it to “disprove” evolution.  Kohlmayer’s logic, if you can call it that, is so fallacious, I’m not sure which fallacy would fit.  Maybe I’ll just use them all.

Before we start, you should know a little bit about The Washington Times. It was founded by the Unification Church (better known as Moonies, from their namesake, Sun Myung Moon) as a competitor to the Washington Post, a rather progressive newspaper in Washington, DC.  The Post had written some negative articles about Moonies back in the late 70’s, while it was the only newspaper in the US Capital.  The Washington Times has a very conservative editorial bias, based upon anti-communism and “Judeo-Christian values.”  Of course, the paper is generally a mouthpiece for the conservative movement in the US, with its preference for climate change and evolution denialism.  
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Regarding the “science made mistakes” tropes? Debunked by real science

science-test-tubeI 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.
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Neil deGrasse Tyson–unafraid of GMO’s

tyson-science-true

For those who read my article about Neil deGrasse Tyson’s comments to the anti-GMO forces to “chill out”, here’s a tweet from him from 18 months ago. He didn’t just think about this issue recently.

Add this to the other world class scientist who thinks that artificial selection is no different than genetic engineering, since they both rely upon changes in genes. One’s random. One’s not.

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Neil deGrasse Tyson tells GMO haters to chill out–liberals get angry

Credit to Wikimedia.

Credit to Wikimedia.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, probably the most popular astrophysicist, if not scientist, of this generation, replaced Carl Sagan as the spokesman of all things science for the country. While not ignoring Bill Nye‘s impact on making science education fun and approachable (and who took classes from Carl Sagan at Cornell University), Sagan literally passed the baton of being the country’s science teacher to Tyson.

For those of us on the left side of the political spectrum, Tyson is like the hero of the pro-science crowd. This past spring, Tyson hosted a program, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, which described and supported some of the great science ideas of our time–evolution, age of the universe, human caused climate change, and other major scientific principles. Ironically, the show was broadcast in the USA on the Fox TV network, whose news division can be charitably described as ultraconservative. Right wing Christian fundamentalist groups, one of the main key demographic groups who watch Fox News, loathed Cosmos for trumpeting scientific knowledge over religious interpretations in just about every one of the the 13 episodes.

Of course, for every reason that Fox News hated Cosmos (even though it was a huge ratings success for Fox, and has garnered a significant number of TV awards and nominations), those of us on the pro-science side loved it. Now, I’m a rarity in the science community in that I did not enjoy the show (the animations offended me on so many levels, but apparently kids loved it), I did watch every episode and would have to rank the episodes on evolution and global warming as some of the best science TV I’d ever seen–despite the lame graphics.
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How to evaluate the quality of scientific research

einstein-science-false-balanceOne of the most tiresome discussions that a scientific skeptic has when debunking and refuting pseudoscience or junk science (slightly different variations of the same theme) is what constitutes real evidence. You’d think that would be easy, “scientific evidence” should be the gold standard, but really, there is a range of evidence from garbage to convincing. So this is my guide to amateur (and if I do a good job, professional) scientific evidence. This is a major update of my original article on this topic, with less emphasis on Wikipedia, and more detail about scientific authority and hierarchy of evidence.

In today’s world of instant news, with memes and 140 character analyses flying across social media pretending to present knowledge in a manner that makes it appear authoritative. Even detailed, 2000 word articles that I write are often considered to be too long, and people only read the title or the concluding paragraph. This happens all the time in the amateur science circles specifically. For example, many people only read the abstract and, even there, only the conclusion of the abstract for scientific articles.

THE most popular article I ever wrote on this blog was one that thoroughly refuted a crazy meme that bananas kill cancer (which is an update of the original banana article). Hysterically, it was based on a complete misunderstanding of a study by “Japanese scientists” (the lead author was, in fact, an American, but whenever you see something that tries to claim authority by using unnamed, but smart sounding, scientists, be wary). Moreover, the conclusion made by the meme-author was based on ignorance about why a growth factor called “tumor necrosis factor” (TNF) that doesn’t do what it sounds like it does, about how a banana would never produce TNF, about how TNF would be broken down in the digestive system, about how it couldn’t be transported from the digestive system to the blood, and about how if you could eat enough bananas, if they did contain TNF, to have a biological effect, it would have to be more bananas than you could possibly eat, and the TNF effects would make you really sick. The banana meme did not have one single accurate assumption. None.

But still, it’s a popular belief. Just go to Facebook, and you’ll find someone promoting it. Like all anti-science memes, it’s a zombie, it reanimates from the dead and spreads its pseudoscience every few months, and I get thousands of hits from people trying to confirm the meme. Well, that’s actually good. I did the hard work of digging into the article and trying to figure out if this whole TNF thing was real.

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Agricultural pesticides cause autism? Don’t hold your breath.

pregnant-fieldIf you’re a regular reader of this blog, you would think that I spend a lot of time discussing autism spectrum disorders (ASD). But the goals of this blog is weed out and debunk pseudoscientific beliefs, especially some of the more popular ones. Probably the most ridiculous had been the fraudulently invented and eventually thoroughly debunked link between vaccines and autism. That belief is completely dead, right? Well, not really. Irrational and, frankly cult-like, groups like Age of Autism refuse to give up. Of course, the Age of Autism is so deluded by their illogical and unscientific beliefs, they oppose funding for genetic research into autism.

Not everyone in the world of ASD has that fanatical hold onto the “vaccines cause autism” trope. Most real scientists accept that the likely cause of ASD is some combination of genetics and environment. But that hasn’t stopped people from claiming that everything, but the kitchen sink, causes ASD. About three years ago, Emily Willingham, Ph.D., whom I consider to be one of the leading ASD scientific experts on this planet, wrote a hysterical, but still appropriate, article about all the popular causes of ASD. Older mothers. Older fathers. Depressed mothers. Fingers. Facial features. Facial features?

Dr. Willingham wrote about around 50 different causes of ASD, including refrigerator mothers (but not kitchen sink mothers)–it has nothing to do with actual refrigerators. That article was very important to me, because it formed the basis of my skepticism about popular beliefs regarding correlation and causality. It’s not just ASD, but other areas, like cancer causes and cures, which seem to attract the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink science.

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