Editor’s note: This article was originally published in December 2014. It has been revised and updated to include more comprehensive information, to improve readability, or to add current research.
The name of this blog, of course, is the Skeptical Raptor. I’m not sure how I invented that name, but I like raptors, either the fossil dinosaur version, or the living dinosaur versions, birds of prey. They both actually work as a metaphor of what I try to do–provide scientific and knowledgeable analyses of the scientific consensus or critiques of beliefs and pseudoscience. Usually one leads to another.
Of course, I don’t pretend to be very nice about my critiques, probably another reason why I chose to put “Raptor” in the blog’s name.
So, you know I’d get super annoyed by those who reject science, then misappropriate the word “skeptic” (or for those of you who prefer the Queen’s English, sceptic). A denier is not a skeptic – the former actually reject the rationality and open-mindedness of real skepticism (and science), but they pretend they are the real skeptics. Oh really? Continue reading “I call it as I see it–a denier is not a skeptic”
Updated 4 November 2014 to add some ironic analysis of Doshi’s “not-an-epidemiologist” background.
A few months ago, I wrote an article about Peter Doshi, a Ph.D. who is doing some postdoctoral work at Johns Hopkins University, one of the leading institutions of higher learning in the USA. Doshi is truly not very notable in science, except last year, he wrote an article about flu vaccines, basically employing the Nirvana Fallacy that because flu vaccines aren’t 100% effective they are worthless. Since vaccines are fundamentally a medical procedure to mitigate risk with a very low risk of adverse events, even 50% effectiveness will save thousands of lives. But we’ll get back to that.
The article he wrote is not actually based on real research, but appears to be an opinion paper–kind of like the opinion papers written by creationists who want to convince anyone who will listen that dinosaurs lived with humans. Doshi denies that most flu’s are even caused by the influenza virus. I guess the CDC’s high tech diagnostic tests for influenza are all wrong. But then again Doshi presents no evidence.
Since humans were first able to communicate with one another, there probably was someone there trying to sell a great new medical advancement. The Stone Age Grok probably would sell you an herbal cure for your broken leg that would cost two goats and a flagon of Stone Age mead. Not being a psychiatrist, and not playing one on the internet, I can only speculate that humans are always searching for the easy cure, the easy treatment, and there are other humans ready to fulfill that market need with magical beliefs.
And if you think that things have changed since Grok, the Stone Age Big Herbal salesmen, was around, you’d be wrong. Instead of goats, it’s money. And instead of cures for broken legs, it’s AIDS vaccines.
A few weeks ago, I wrote an article about a crowdfunded company, Immunity Project, that claims it had developed a paradigm-shifting new HIV/AIDS vaccine, that they will sell for free. To put it lightly, I was highly skeptical, not only of the the science behind this magical vaccine, but also of their business strategy, which would require them to raise hundreds of millions of dollars to sell the vaccine at $0. The principals of the company very politely hit back at me on Twitter and on the comments section of the original article, asking me and others to read their white paper (pdf), which appears to be nothing more than an advertising piece about their company and their ideas.
Immunity Project is relying upon crowd funding (or sometimes called crowd sourcing) to raise startup (or angel) money to get their company going. This money is raised online from a broad community of “investors” who contribute usually smaller amounts of money than would be a big time investor (corporate or private capital). Their goal is to raise enough money to get the concept into clinical trials and eventually to sell it for free. Continue reading “Crowd funded HIV vaccine–more junk science!”
I pay attention to vaccines, not just the ones on the market, but also the future technologies that will allow us to prevent other types of diseases. This not only includes preventing common communicable diseases, but also using vaccines to boost the immune system so that the immune system can destroy and prevent diseases like cancer.
Traditional vaccines available today mimic the natural immune process against reinfection, which is generally seen in individuals who have recovered from infection. Unfortunately, there are almost no recovered AIDS patients to give us a model for preventing reinfection.
Because HIV infection may remain latent for long periods before causing AIDS, a vaccine induced immunity probably cannot destroy the HIV virus until the AIDS disease itself shows up, at which point the vaccine-induced immune process may be ineffective.
Most effective vaccines are whole-killed or live-attenuated organisms; killed HIV-1 does not retain antigenicity for the adaptive immune system to “remember.” On the other hand, a live virus might provide proper antigenicity, but live HIV vaccines may raise significant safety issues.
Most vaccines protect against infections that are infrequently encountered, which means the immune system can be fairly efficient in dealing with the pathogen. Unfortunately, individuals at high risk to HIV may encounter the virus frequently, even daily, which may overwhelm any immune response.
Most vaccines protect against infections through mucosal surfaces of the respiratory or gastrointestinal tract; the great majority of HIV infection is through the genital tract. However, this is might be relatively easy to overcome. Continue reading “Crowd funded HIV vaccine–junk science?”
In fact, there are several hallmarks that indicate to most educated individuals as to what is or is not pseudoscience. Real science is a systematic and rational method to organize and analyze “knowledge” into testable explanations and predictions. Sometimes, it appears that the anti-science crowd believes that science is just a word, not a philosophy which is organized as the scientific method. It isn’t some magical system that only smart people in secret ivory towers practice. The scientific method is simply a set of logical steps:
Formulate a question: Based on observations of the natural world. Maybe you notice that sky is blue, and you ask “why is the sky blue?” Or “how do I design a vaccine to encourage the immune system to prevent a virus from causing a disease?” Of course, the questions can become much more complex as we make more detailed observations of the our world.
Hypothesis: An hypothesis is a conjecture, based on the knowledge obtained while formulating the question, that may explain the observed behavior of a part of our universe. The hypothesis may be broad or very narrow. One could make a hypothesis that life can evolve on many planets across the universe. Or one could make a hypothesis that a drug can cure a disease in a small population of individuals. A proper hypothesis must include a null hypothesis, that is, the scientist must be willing to test that the null hypothesis is also false (a sort of double negative). This null hypothesis is that the new vaccine does nothing and that any disease prevention are due to chance effects. Researchers must also show that the null hypothesis is false. A scientific hypothesis must be falsifiable, meaning that one can identify a possible outcome of an experiment that conflicts with predictions deduced from the hypothesis; otherwise, it cannot be meaningfully tested. This all sounds complicated, but digested down to its simplest form, it means that a scientist is always willing to attempt to prove that the hypothesis is wrong.
Prediction: Once a hypothesis is developed, then the a prediction (or more than one prediction) is made based on the hypothesis. For example, if a vaccine is supposed to prevent a disease, then the prediction is made that it prevents some some amount of the disease above what would be assumed just by random chance. For example, without the vaccine it might be predicted that only 10% of individuals might be immune to the disease, but with the vaccine, it would be predicted that 85% would be immune. In all fields of science, the hypothesis leads to predictions which are different than what would be found simply by coincidence or randomness. Also, the hypothesis must be powerful enough to create more accurate predictions than alternative hypotheses.
Test: This is the conducting of experiments or investigations to determine whether the real world behaves as predicted by the hypotheses. These experiments are observations which will agree with or conflict with the predictions; if they agree, then the confidence in the hypothesis will increase. On the other hand, if there is conflict, the confidence will, of course, decrease. Experiments should be designed to minimize possible errors, especially through the use of appropriate scientific controls. Medical and drug experiments utilize double-blind clinical trials to limit confirmation bias, a tendency towards confirmation of the hypothesis under study.
Analysis: This involves determining what the results of the experiment show and deciding on the next actions to take. The predictions of the hypothesis are compared to those of the null hypothesis, to determine which is better able to explain the data. In cases where an experiment is repeated many times, a statistical analysis such as a chi-squared test may be required. If the evidence has falsified the hypothesis, a new hypothesis is required; if the experiment supports the hypothesis but the evidence is not strong enough for high confidence, other predictions from the hypothesis must be tested. Once a hypothesis is strongly supported by evidence, a new question can be asked to provide further insight on the same topic. Evidence from other scientists and one’s own experience can be incorporated at any stage in the process. Many iterations may be required to gather sufficient evidence to answer a question with confidence, or to build up many answers to highly specific questions in order to answer a single broader question. Continue reading “Pseudoscience and vaccine denialism (updated)”
Yesterday, I responded to an article that I read, where the author wanted African-Americans to refuse HIV testing because of…pseudoscientific nonsense. I refuted the 10 claims of the AIDS denialist without too much trouble, though I doubt that the denialist will care that much. An AIDS denialist, for those who might not know, is someone who denies the link between HIV and AIDS, blaming AIDS on something else (other than the scientifically supported HIV infection).
There are times I read pseudoscience online, and it causes my blood pressure to go through the roof. Of course, maybe life would be easier if I just accepted that everything written in the interwebs is accurate and THE TRUTH™. Today I read some comments about the new iPad where global warming denialists used junk science to support their ramblings. How the article moved from the new iPad to global warming is beyond the ability of me to describe.
I have a lot of smart people who I follow on Facebook and Twitter. Very few are actual friends or family, most are just like-minded people who entertain me with rational discussions on a wide range of topics. And sports.
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. Continue reading “Pseudoscience and the anti-vaccine lunacy”
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.