As 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.
(more…) «Science can anger people even…»
Genetically modified crops are foods derived from genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and all types of agricultural breeding induces genetic modification, but in general, GMO usually implies actual manipulation of the genes. The major controversy surrounds the use of DNA recombination-introducing genes from one species into another. Despite all of this controversy, there is an amazing lack of data that shows that GMO foods are unsafe. In fact, there are secondary reviews that show it is safe.
(more…) «GMO corn causes cancer–Myth vs….»
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.
I ran across a blog that is titled Homeopathy: Science Modern Evidencebased (sic). Since any reasonable person would understand that homeopathy violates some of the basic principles of physics, chemistry and biology. And because there is no viable mechanism that would make you think homeopathy actually could work, clinical trials show that it doesn’t work, or, at best, it is a mythical placebo. So, if it doesn’t work in clinical trials, and there is no possible mechanism underlying it, employing Occam’s Razor, we would have to say the simplest explanation is the best: Homeopathy does not work. It’s a lie. It’s a scam. Period. End of story.
But you want more. You want real explanations.
(more…) «A homeopath discusses evidence based…»
We frequently use the term “pseudoscience” to describe the ideology of certain groups: anti-vaccinationists, evolution deniers (creationists), global warming deniers, and almost anything in the areas of parapsychology, alternative medicine, and sasquatch. The science denialists (broadly defined as any group who rejects the scientific consensus on any subject without valid scientific support) always seem to be insulted by the word “pseudoscience” as if it’s a pejorative without foundation.
(more…) «Pseudoscience and the anti-vaccine lunacy»
This is part of my ongoing discussion on how quacks use pseudoscience to push their myths and potions on the world. Part 1 discussed the scientific method, which allows us to objectively analyze the natural world. Part 2 discussed the best way for us to examine the difference between science and pseudoscience.
I just read an outstanding analysis, by Steven Novella, MD, a clinical neurologist at Yale University, of how pseudoscience (those who pretend to praise the scientific method, yet do it in a way that is not actually science) and anti-science (those who repudiate science outright, or even undermine science, with subjective analysis and untestable spirituality) to reject evidence-based medicine.
Dr. Novella clearly states how science in medicine works:
This leads us to the final continuum – the consensus of expert opinion based upon systematic reviews can either result in a solid and confident unanimous opinion, a reliable opinion with serious minority objections, a genuine controversy with no objective resolution, or simply the conclusion that we currently lack sufficient evidence and do not know the answer. It can also lead, of course, to a solid consensus of expert opinion combined with a fake controversy manufactured by a group driven by ideology or greed and not science. The tobacco industry’s campaign of doubt against the conclusion that smoking is a risk factor for lung cancer is one example. The anti-vaccine movement’s fear-mongering about vaccines and autism is another.
Basically, science evolves over time. A conclusion that lacks sufficient evidence may eventually be supported by better analysis or groundbreaking research. You’ll notice that anti-science and pseudoscience pushers do not allow themselves to participate in the this continuum of research–they state emphatically that they are right.
Science, by its very nature, must be falsifiable, meaning that any hypothesis or theory has the logical possibility that it can be contradicted by an observation or the outcome of a physical experiment. Just because a hypothesis or theory is “falsifiable,” we do not conclude that it is false. To the contrary, we understand that if it is false, then some observation or experiment will provide a reproducible result that is in conflict with it. Simply put, science assumes that it has it all wrong, and attempts to determine why a particular theory or hypothesis is wrong. Of course, in these attempts, usually more evidence is found to support the original theory. Just because science requires falsifiability, that does not mean that it will ever be falsified, but science is open to the possibility. In other words, science evolves.
Pseudoscience, by its very nature, is not falsifiable. It is mostly based on assertion rather than scientific observation, so it cannot be tested by experiment or observation. Creationism is a perfect example. It is based on a human text (the bible), so there is no experiment that could be designed to test the text, since it non-responsive in a natural sense. It would be like trying to scientifically show that the muppets existed.
Two of the most misused and misunderstood terms in evaluating scientific evidence are correlation and causation, two powerful analytical tools that are critical to evidence based medicine. Correlation is the grouping of variables that may occur together. For example, smoking correlates with lung cancer in that those who smoke tend to develop lung cancer at a statistically significant rate. It’s important to note that correlation does not prove causation. However, once you have numerous well-designed studies that correlate lung cancer to smoking, along with adding in biological and physiological models that support the correlation, then we can arrive at a consensus that not only is smoking correlated with lung cancer, it causes it.
We observe correlations every day. But they are subjective observations for which we cannot state a causal relationship without substantial research. The anti-vaccination movement is rife with these observations which they use to “prove” a cause. An anti-vaccine conspiracy website claims that pregnant women are miscarrying babies after getting the shot. The fact is that there is a statistical chance that women will miscarry during any pregnancy. This is random variability not a cause. In fact, based on the rate of miscarriage, we could expect that thousands of women would miscarry within 24 hours of getting the H1N1 flu shot. But it’s not correlation, unless significant studies show a causal relationship. For example, I’m also sure that thousands of people broke a bone or had a desire to eat a burger after getting the shot, but that’s because in a large enough population of individuals, you can find literally millions of different actions after getting a shot.
So, the miscarriage rate after receiving the swine flu shot is not correlated. It’s just a random observation. And there is no biological cause that could be described. Nevertheless, the “flu vaccine causes miscarriage” conspiracy has been thoroughly debunked by research, but still the internet meme continues. Pseudoscience sometimes uses the same methodology (or lack of methodology) to make positive assertions. Homeopaths will claim that their dilutions will cure whatever disease, yet they do not have scientific evidence supporting them, but there plenty of evidence that debunks what they practice.
As part of my analysis of medical claims of causation or “cures”, I often use this logic to test the possibility of the usefulness of any alternative medicine–is there any physical, chemical or biological mechanism that will allow the quack procedure to work? If you cannot imagine it without violating some of the basic laws of science, then we should stand by Occam’s razor, which states often times the simplest solution is the best. So, if there is no evidence of vaccinations being correlated, let alone causal, to autism, then that remains the simplest solution. To explain a possible tie without any evidence would require us to suspend what we know of most biological processes.
As I’ve said in other posts, the internet gives us so much information, we tend to value it equally, as if every website provides accurate and logical data points. Maybe you have a friend who had a miscarriage 24 hours after receiving the swine flu vaccine. Maybe you’ve heard that many people have. But that’s not science, that’s just a subjective observation. Or even confirmation bias.
Once again, Dr. Novella says it perfectly:
In conclusion, correlation is an extremely valuable type of scientific evidence in medicine. But first correlations must be confirmed as real, and then every possible causational relationship must be systematically explored. In the end correlation can be used as powerful evidence for a cause and effect relationship between a treatment and benefit, or a risk factor and a disease. But it is also one of the most abused types of evidence, because it is easy and even tempting to come to premature conclusions based upon the preliminary appearance of a correlation.