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.
Several weeks ago, I wrote an article on how to decipher the science (or pseudoscience) in popular news articles. It discusses how 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 purveyors. For example, Wikipedia’s article on Alzheimer’s disease is probably one of the best medical articles on 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.
(more…) «Quality of science sources in…»
While catching up on my favorite blogs (and nearly giving up after reading the 300th one regarding the recent Supreme Court ruling on Obamacare), I ran across Liz Ditz’s short and to-the-point Why I Dislike the Term “Allopathy” on I Speak of Dreams. Allopathy is an invented word that, according to Kimball Atwood at Science Based Medicine (Homeopathy & Evidence-Based Medicine),
…was the term coined by (Samuel) Hahnemann (founder of homeopathy) to dramatize the contrast between homeopathy and its competition. According to Hahnemann, “allopathic” medicine sought to give only medicines that suppressed symptoms.
You’ll find allopathy being used by just about any woo-meister in alternative medicine universe. Joe Mercola, anti-vaccine quack and promoter (and when I say promoter, I mean seller of all things alternative medicine) uses the term “allopathic” in 53 articles on his website to attack sound, evidence-based medicine. That’s basically proof that the word is a pejorative like “Western medicine” or “traditional medicine.” It tries to make it sound like evidence-based medicine is closed minded, stuck on tradition, when, in fact, it’s open-minded to new theories and techniques.
In Wikipedia’s article on allopathy, “the meaning (as) implied by the label has never been accepted by conventional medicine, and is still considered pejorative by some.” However, in Wikipedia, the resource for all things woo, allopathy is often used by anti-science pushers to make their articles fit their pseudoscientific view of the world, and it is almost always used in a pejorative fashion to make alternative medicine appear to be somewhat more “open minded”. For example, here’s a discussion amongst the well-known pseudoscience pushers on Wikipedia claiming that allopathic medicine is not science based. Or Dana Ullman, the biggest promoter of homeopathy in the world, spending huge amounts of bandwidth trying to get Wikipedia to use allopathy to describe science based medicine. Of course, Dana was permanently banned from editing anything to do with homeopathy on Wikipedia based on his horrible behavior issues. If you see “allopathy” in a Wikipedia article, be prepared for pseudoscience.
Or as Liz Ditz puts it:
The chiroquacktors use the word allopathy a lot to disparage medicine (as opposed to their fantasy world).
Yup. They do.
There have been a couple of significant changes to this website to provide more information to the reader in the ongoing discourse of skepticism vs. irrationality. And by irrationality, of course, we mean anything pseudoscientific.
First, the Logical Fallacies FAQ has been thoroughly updated to make some sections more easy to read, add some better examples of the fallacy, and new external links. Also, in the sidebar, you can download the whole FAQ into a pdf file for use later. There are more detailed descriptions of logical fallacies out in the internet, but most of them are intense and detailed descriptions of the logic behind the illogic. Most of us, as readers of blogs, tend to have a limited amount of time, so having a quick reference on various fallacies should help get through various articles quickly.
(more…) «Housekeeping notes: Logical Fallacies and…»
Pseudoscience believers are always looking for something, anything, that supports their point of view of the universe. Whether it’s vaccine denialists, or global warming denialists, or evolution denialists…well, any kind of denialist, they all need some piece of evidence to prove that they are not denying scientific evidence. So when you don’t have science, go for whatever comes next.
First, a bit of background on homeopathy. It’s water. Yes, water has some very special properties, it’s necessary for the human body to work well, without we die. So homeopaths think that if you dilute out substances in water (a level of dilution so high that not one single molecule of the substance remains), the water retains a memory of it. And that memory supposedly cures things, or does something medical. Since water cannot retain memory of anything, the details after that become irrelevant, because their basic premise is about as much of an impossibility that one can find in science. If water had some method of retaining memory, then it would mean that ever single principle of physics and chemistry would be wiped off the face of science textbooks forever.
(more…) «Where Switzerland did not endorse…»
Yesterday, out of the blue, Thomas Lee Elifritz, an engineer (not a scientist, as we discussed with regards to creationists) decided to go crazy on one of my posts (actually my second one here), with some fairly uncivil commentary (I had to block one of his posts because it made me, who has the language of a Navy petty officer, kind of uncomfortable). He came to complain about one of my edits on Wikipedia. Now technically, Wikipedia takes seriously any off-Wiki harassment and threats from editors. Since this website tracks IP addresses of commenters (thank WordPress, I don’t care at all), I could contact the Cabal that controls Wikipedia with this information. But I just don’t care that much.
His comment, “I assume you are the prick you edited out the latest Younger Dryas Impact paper from Kennett et al. from its wikipedia page. Heckava job there, bozo,” didn’t exactly make him out to be very intelligent nor respectful. In addition, it was very cowardly of him not to bring the discussion to Wikipedia where it belonged. I guess he prefers harassment here than civil conversation on Wikipedia.
Although my interests center on medicine and biology, I have more than a professional hobbyist interest in geology, specifically vulcanism, the study of volcanoes (and not Spock). So I peruse news stories about volcanic eruptions when they appear. This week, a British newspaper, the Daily Mail, published a story entitled, Is a super-volcano just 390 miles from London about to erupt? I suspect that the Daily Mail is one of Britain’s sensationalist newspapers, and this article would confirm it.
But let’s go over some of it’s points. Yes, the Laacher See volcano did erupt about 12,900 years ago, and it was a rather large eruption, on the size of Mt. Pinatubo in 1991. Obviously, I was somewhat surprised that such a recent and large volcanic event happened in Europe. If it did happen today, Europe would be devastated for years. That eruption was massive, and one can find deep layers of ash throughout Central Europe up through to the North Sea. It had a profound effect on weather patterns of the era, with effects happening within a few weeks.
The article uses as its evidence that the volcano erupts every 12,000 years, so it’s overdue (I suppose) for an eruption, and that there are some CO2 outgassing in the lake (which formed when the magma chamber collapsed after the most recent eruption). If that’s their “evidence” for a future eruption, then we need to redefine what constitutes evidence. In fact, as they say in the financial industry, past performance is not a guarantee of future results. Furthermore, I could find no published, peer-reviewed support for a prediction of a new eruption. In other words, the Daily Mail invented this prediction.
As for the CO2 bubbles in the lake, yes that happens in water over a magma chamber, but it is, by itself, not an indicator of impending doom. However, the CO2 can be dangerous, of course, but that’s a biological issue not a prediction-of-eruption issue.
This is what bothers me about these kind of articles. The internet, being the rather instant communication method that it is, transfers this information from one side of the planet to another. Soon, I’ll be reading about it in what are supposed to be reasonable websites that monitor the world environmental issues.
Science journalism has a responsibility to actually provide accurate information. Too many times I read articles published in news sites (probably higher quality than the Daily Mail) that wildly misinterpret medical or scientific articles. I spend so much time debunking the overstating of what is said that if I could get paid for it, I’d have quite a career set up. Wikipedia is notorious for this kind of sensationalism.
I can only hope that all the skeptics out there have an effect on this type of bad science journalism. And London, you’re safe for now, though with the Olympics coming up, I may change my mind.
Just a brief housekeeping note. Many of the links in this blog will point to an associated Wikipedia article. I, in fact, read and edit those articles, so I won’t make a link to an article that doesn’t make my point. It is supposed to be the epitome of a democratic encyclopedia, one that anyone can edit. It is free to read, and it has become the number one hit for almost any key subject, whether popular or obscure. Other than Obama’s own websites, the Wikipedia article about him is the first google hit.
I have mixed feelings about Wikipedia. There has been significant criticism of the project, which itself reduces the confidence in its quality and its usefulness. My concerns about these articles rest in a few key areas:
- Quality of writing. Some of the writing is just plain bad. Some of it is a result of poor writing skills from English-speaking and non-English speaking contributors. But some of it is also from a waffling or trivial writing style. Worse yet, the prose is often not very engaging. Sometimes, it’s so difficult to read it, that one is apt to dismiss the article as being useless, even if it has useful knowledge.
- Neutrality. Wikipedia has a vaunted policy called the Neutral Point of View, often abbreviated as NPOV. At its core, it states that an article should be written to represent all significant views that have been published by reliable sources. Two major problems arise from this policy. First, since it is very subjective, editors literally beat each other over the head with this policy. Second, and more importantly, NPOV drives articles to their worst. Academic articles usually state a point of view. You cannot read a book about the Holocaust without reading the point of view of the author. A medical article nearly always presents a point of view, albeit one supported by scientific research. Worse yet, editors will claim that a neutral article should include fringe theories. I edit medical and science articles anonymously, and I find myself either editing out strange, unscientific ramblings from these articles.
- Vandalism. Because articles are almost always available to be edited by anyone, there is a certain level of vandalism that occurs, everything from “Joe was here” to profanity to much more subtle, insidious vandalism that is difficult to identify. More often than Wikipedia is willing to admit, this subtle vandalism remains in the article, often leading to inaccurate or incorrect information. This edit to the article on Martin Luther King, Jr remained for over 4 hours, despite the overt racism written into the article. There are numerous cases of these type of problems.
- Lack of expertise. Because most editors are anonymous (a small subset of editors use their real names), it is nearly impossible to know the quality of edits from specific editors. I believe that smart people can write about anything. But, lacking an education in neurophysiology, how do I know if the article on dementia is of high or low quality? Whenever I read an article, I check the references. A high number of references means that usually the writing is supported by academic research. Wikipedia will need to fix this issue.
- Anti-intellectualism. As a corollary to the lack of expertise is the pervasive contempt amongst Wikipedia editors against expert editors. There is a class of editors called “admins” who, more or less, act as the police, judge and jury for the project. They have the ability to pass summary judgement upon any editor. As a class, they are a part of the anti-intellectual core of the project. There are a few admins with expertise on science, historical, medical and other areas, but they generally keep a low profile.
So why do I link to Wikipedia articles? They may not be the best I can find on the internet, but these articles are, in general, fairly useful and provide an adequate background for a topic. When I find better sources for particular information, I use it.
I leave my readers with this warning about Wikipedia: read the articles with a critical eye as you do anything else you read. The problem is critical reading is not a skill I see very often these days.