Skeptical Raptor's Blog hunting pseudoscience in the internet jungle

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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How science deniers use false equivalency to pretend there’s a debate

If you read a news article, Google a scientific topic, or watch TV, you’d think that some scientific principles were actually being debated by scientists. From listening to the screaming and yelling, you would think that scientists aren’t sure about evolution, vaccines, global warming, and the age of the earth (or even the age of the universe). There are even those who think there’s a debate that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS.

Science vs BS

Part of the problem is that some people think that science is unapproachable and too hard to comprehend. It isn’t. Now, that doesn’t mean it’s easy, because it shouldn’t be. Answering questions about the natural universe requires, demands that scientist approach it with the least amount of bias and the most amount of evidence. And sometimes it is complex and nuanced, but why do people give false balance to someone, without the expertise or education in the field, as if they know more about the issue than does the scientist.

To become a world class architect and to design a skyscraper isn’t easy, but we non-architects can observe what we see, and accept that the building isn’t going to topple over in a hurricane. Do we presume to know how the foundation has to be built to support the building? Or what materials are used to give flexibility in a wind, but strong enough to not collapse? Mostly, we don’t, we trust that there isn’t a massive conspiracy to build unsafe skyscrapers because architects are being paid off by Big Concrete to use cheaper materials. We don’t question the architects’s motives or whether there are solid engineering principles, probably outside of most of our understanding, that were employed to make that skyscraper.

It’s the same with science. We can accept scientific principles without doing the research ourselves. But, and it’s a big but, if you want to dispute accepted science, then you have to bring science to the table not a false debate. Science isn’t hard, but it isn’t easy either. You cannot deny basic scientific facts without getting a solid education, opening a scientific laboratory staffed with world-class scientists, and then publishing peer-reviewed articles that can help move the prevailing scientific consensus. You cannot spend an hour or a day or even a week Googling a few websites and then loudly proclaim that the scientific consensus is wrong; no, you need to do the hard work. Until you do, those of us who are skeptics and scientists get to ignore you, and we get to continue with the current consensus.
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The Irish Catholic children’s home scandal–it’s NOT about vaccines

children-at-st-marysThere’s an appalling story out of Ireland that has dominated the news for the past few days. Over a period of 35 years, St Mary’s Mother and Baby Home, a Catholic home for unwed mothers in County Galway (on the west coast of Ireland), apparently buried some children in a sewer system after dying in that home. You might have heard from some irresponsible journalists that over 800 children were buried in the septic tank, without questioning whether 800 bodies could actually be buried in the septic system, and without determining when the home was moved to a County sanitary sewer system, making it impossible to dump dead children in the septic tank. OK, that’s a small point.

According to the individual who actually uncovered this atrocity, Catherine Corless, an academic historian, she claims, through her research of birth records and other information, around 800 children died at this home over 36 years. The Irish Times reports, “between 1925, when the home opened, and 1937 the tank remained in use. During that period 204 children died at the home. Corless admits that it now seems impossible to her that more than 200 bodies could have been put in a working sewage tank.” OK, it’s sad and maddening that 22 children died every year at this home, even if infant mortality rates were substantially higher back then because of malnutrition and vaccine preventable diseases (like measles, mumps, polio, rotavirus and others) that would run rampant through closed quarters like that.

So the first myth we need to debunk is that there are 800 bodies buried in a septic tank–there aren’t. But, like I’ve said, that’s really just a minor point (setting aside the atrocity itself, which we’ll address later), because there are some other issues that have arisen with this story that also need to be discussed honestly.
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Science can anger people even in the most obscure fields

 

younger-dryas-cometAs I have said many times, I’m a scientific skeptic. That is, I don’t just reject ideas simply to reject them, I actually reject or accept ideas based on the quality and quantity of evidence. I don’t pretend to know much about the Big Bang, but I know when it happened and what happened, but I leave it to experts to hash out the details. No one person can be an authority on every field of science, no matter how many initials follow their name. I’ve already mentioned how hard it is to become an expert in a scientific discipline.

If you read this blog regularly, you’d think I’m completely interested in vaccines, with a little bit here and there on GMO’s, evolution, and climate change. But my own personal interests in biology are, in no particular order, is evolution of man (about which I’ve written some), endocrinology (about which I’ve written nothing), and extinction events (about which I’ve written little here). I have co-authored a couple of articles on Wikipedia on extinction events, have read dozens of books on the major extinction events, and have attended many scientific conferences on mass extinction. I may not have an official degree in extinction geology and biology, but I have spent several thousand hours doing real research in the area.

But I’m pretty certain that the audience for this blog will find my discussion about extinction events to be a bit dull. However, I’m hoping that there is a cautionary tale about science that can be applied to some general rules I have about science.

A couple of years ago, I started editing an article on Wikipedia about the Younger Dryas impact hypothesis. Without going into too many details, it was a hypothesis (named after an Alpine flower) that some sort of comet or asteroid impact struck the ice sheet covering North America, about 13,000 years ago, which lead to the death of the megafauna (mammoths, sabertooth cats, and whatever else lived in North America). It is hypothesized that the impact actually caused a temporary reversal of the retreat of the glaciers towards the end of the glacial maximum.

I actually came across ran the article when I was reviewing some information I had read about climate change from the last glacial maximum (you know, when glaciers covered much of North America). I wanted to know if a bolide impact (meteor or comet) could caused a massive change in North America.
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