Huge volcano threatens Europe!!! Maybe not.

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.



Duesberg Strikes a blow for HIV/AIDS denialism : denialism blog

Duesberg Strikes a blow for HIV/AIDS denialism : denialism blog.

Laymen summary:  Duesberg has no clue.  None.

I spend a lot of time criticizing the vaccine denialists who have taken a fraudulent study, Andrew Wakefield’s Lancet publication claiming a link between MMR vaccinations and autism, to causing families to stop vaccinating children.  This has lead to increased measles, whooping cough and other disease rates.  All of which are preventable.

But of course, Duesberg, an HIV/AIDS denialist hits a whole new level of harm to others.  He claims HIV does not cause AIDS.  Actually, there is a ton of evidence that it does.  He claims that AZT is ineffective.  The evidence says otherwise, and in fact, HAART has decreased AIDS mortality significantly.

And what has this AIDS denialism done?  Uganda and South Africa have rising AIDS rates because of this denialism (and a government’s complicity to that denialism).

I wish that Peter Duesberg would go away.  But unfortunately, science allows for the gadflies and cranks, which, in this case, cause harm.

Vaccines–once more with emphasis

As I’ve discussed previously, I find the anti-vaccine movement, linking cases of autism to pediatric vaccinations, to be based on pseudoscientific principles.  There are several individuals that have pushed this quackery, but one of the more visible is Jenny McCarthy, ex-Playboy Playmate of the Year (no, I’m not going to link to it), bad actress, and failed game-show host.  I am flabbergasted, befuddled, and generally gobsmacked that anyone would listen to this woman, a scientific illiterate, about anything outside of how to model and possibly how to choose a career in bad movies.  That parents are making decisions about vaccinating their children based on her bogus beliefs is beyond my simple understanding of the world.  I guess if you get an endorsement from Oprah Winfrey, you have power!

However, there are always consequences to every action, and there are many by delaying or refusing vaccinations.  The Jenny McCarthy Body Count is a website that lists every vaccine-preventable case and death that has occurred since Jenny made public her belief that vaccines caused autism in her son (which many believe is a misdiagnosis) in June 2007.  Since then, there have been 142, oops, I mean 866 preventable deaths (as of today).  (As an aside, I had taken a screenshot of the Body Count three years ago to make a presentation, and the number was 142.  It is horrifying that the number has increased 7X since then.) As the website says, she’s not responsible for everyone one of these cases or deaths.  But if she convinces just one person to not adhere to a vaccine schedule for their children, then it’s one too many.

This body count, and Jenny McCarthy’s involvement, would be funny in any other context.  Children contracting diseases that can be easily prevented, with few or any side effects, is irresponsible and abusive.  An 18 month old child cannot decide whether they receive a vaccination or not, so we must rely upon well-informed parents to make certain it happens.  The anti-vaccine movement, based on junk science, causes harm.

And remember, the counter for the number of children who have been diagnosed with autism that has been linked to vaccinations remains at 0.

Time to return to your movies Jenny.

Good job vaccine denialists

The anti-vaccinationsts have had a lot of success in Europe recently.  According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, they report these rather gloomy statistics for measles during the Jan-Oct, 2011 time period:

  • France–nearly 15,000 measles cases
  • Italy–over 4,500 cases
  • Spain–almost 1,900 cases
  • Europe–over 28,000 cases

Measles is a totally preventable disease with an extremely safe vaccination.  And even though there is a belief that measles is not that dangerous, acute measles has a 15% mortality rate.

I see these stories, and I wonder if the anti-vaccination zealots sleep at night knowing the harm they cause.

Chiropractic: Concussion Craziness – Skeptical Health : Skeptical Health

Chiropractic: Concussion Craziness – Skeptical Health : Skeptical Health.

Let me summarize what the article says:

  1. A concussion is serious, which usually, and I repeat usually, resolves itself.
  2. A real doctor (a DO or MD who actually has a degree and has trained in emergency medicine) should see the patient to rule out anything more serious.
  3. A chiropractor cannot do #2 by law, by training, or by knowledge.

If you want more information about “Chiropractic Neurology” (and if that’s not quack medicine trying to sound real by throwing in scientific terms, I don’t know what is), read what Steven Novella said about it at Science Based Medicine.

How pseudoscience makes its case. Part 3.

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.


Legal thuggery, antivaccine edition, part 3: Andrew Wakefield rallying the troops : Respectful Insolence

Legal thuggery, antivaccine edition, part 3: Andrew Wakefield rallying the troops : Respectful Insolence.

The arrogant, narcissistic Andrew Wakefield is going to bring  a lawsuit against Brian Deer, the dogged Times of London reporter who not only uncovered that the original Lancet article authored by Wakefield was filled with errors, but uncovered fraud committed by Wakefield.

This is just wrong.