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”
It’s cold season, so everyone tries various lotions and potions to either prevent the common cold or, at least, to reduce the course of the disease. Alternative medicine’s favorite disease to treat is the common cold, mainly because it’s an easy disease with not too many consequences. Also, it’s very subjective, since the patient has a difficult time making an accurate determination of the length and severity of the attack. Confirmation bias is usually the reason one hears that something works for the cold. They forget all the times it doesn’t. Or completely misjudge the actual effects of any treatment. Continue reading “Preventing and treating the common cold”
While doing some research on the placebo non-effect, I found this article, The Placebo Myth, by Mark Crislip (an infectious disease specialist), in the Science Based Medicine blog. He makes a simple and effective question which debunks the “placebo effect”: “why would actively doing nothing have any measurable physiologic effect? It shouldn’t and it doesn’t. Mind over matter? Bah, humbug.” He continues, “I think that the placebo effect with pain is a mild example of cognitive behavioral therapy; the pain stays the same, it is the emotional response that is altered.” So, it’s talking therapy (albeit not very focused), not a sugar pill that works. Continue reading “The Placebo Myth from Science Based Medicine”
I saved this list from something I read a few years ago, when I first became interested in pseudoscience (not from a pure profit standpoint, just to be a cantankerous debater). It’s quite useful.
How to rate a work of pseudoscience:
A thirty-one-point checklist for rating contributions to the field of archaeology that claim to be revolutionary or to overturn long-accepted ideas. The higher the score, the more ‘controversial’ the book and the more money its author can hope to make from sales, lecture tours, television spin-offs and so on.
- 5 points starting credit.
- 1 point for every statement that is in conflict with generally accepted theories.
- 2 points for every statement that is clearly vacuous.
- 3 points for each internal inconsistency.
- 5 points for every supposition that is maintained despite prodigious archaeological evidence to the contrary.
- 5 points for each instance of spurious data expressed as fact.
- 5 points for each dark hint that a piece of otherwise widely-accepted evidence is faked.
- 5 points for each authoritative reference to Richard Hoagland, Edgar Cayce, Immanuel Velikovsky, Erich von Däniken, Jacques Bergier, Thor Heyerdahl, Zecharia Sitchin, Charles Berlitz, Andrew Tomas, John Anthony West, Michael Dames, Graham Hancock or Robert Bauval.
- 5 points for reference to sites of dubious authority, especially Glozel, the ‘Hall of Records’, the Paluxy River human footprints
- 7 points for each disparaging reference to Erich von Däniken.
- 7 points for each authoritative reference to Martin Bernal, Cheikh Anta Diop, David Rohl, Peter James, Barry Fell…
- 7 points for each reference to an exotic location of dubious relevance, including Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Macchu Picchu, Great Zimbabwe, the ‘Candelabra of the Andes’, Nan Matol, Bimini and Glastonbury.
- 7 points for each reference to an ‘out of place artefact’, including batteries from Babylon, the Antikythera computer, Ancient Egyptian or South American model aeroplanes, the ‘Coso Artifact’, technical drawings at Dendera, the Ica stones, the Acambaro figurines, the ‘Dropa stones’ and crystal skulls.
- 10 points for each authoritative reference to R A Schwaller de Lubicz, Michael Cremo, Richard Thompson or T C Lethbridge.
- 10 points for each baseless claim that widely accepted theories are fundamentally erroneous.
- 10 points for discovering ‘links’ between languages widely separated in time and space (such as Etruscan and Quechua).
- 10 points for boasting of academic degrees unrelated to the topic at hand, especially proclaiming a PhD on the cover of a book.
- 10 points for spelling archaeology as archeology in the mistaken belief that it is the correct American spelling.
- 15 points for boasting of a lack of academic degrees, insisting that formal education is not only unnecessary but also an impediment to creative thought.
- 15 points for each photograph of the author standing by a ‘mysterious’ structure (preferably, mostly out of shot) in an exotic location.
- 20 points for lamentations of being misunderstood.
- 20 points for not including a bibliography.
- 20 points for every use of a myth or legend as a record of fact.
- 20 points for defensive citations of real or imagined ridicule inflicted by the academia.
- 25 points for each evidential mention of Atlantis, Mu, Lemuria, Cydonia, the ‘Face on Mars’, the continental shelf, the Bermuda Triangle or Antarctica.
- 30 points for insisting that if critics cannot disprove a theory, then it must necessarily be true.
- 30 points for claiming to be the victim of a conspiracy by the scientific establishment.
- 30 points for extensive footnotes or endnotes.
- 40 points for professing to be privy to information that is secret or to which no one else has access.
- 40 points for claiming to have deciphered a previously unintelligible script.
- 50 points for claims of psychic revelation or firsthand past-life experience.
I think I might use this for the next History Channel series on ghosts, Nostradamus, aliens, sasquatch, or whatever else they push these days. If they don’t score around 400, I’d be shocked.
Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health, wants to continue finding complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) modalities in cancer because they are popular? So, we ignore the fact that most CAM has no basis in science (basic principles biology, chemistry, physiology and physics are misunderstood or even dismissed)? We ignore the fact that there is no CAM therapy has ever been shown to work?
Collins, you’re much smarter than me, better educated, and more successful in medicine. So, are you deluded? Well, I actually have an answer to that (your fundamentalist Christian beliefs), but I’ll keep it to myself. Oh, I guess I didn’t.
Let me summarize what the article says:
- A concussion is serious, which usually, and I repeat usually, resolves itself.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
Recently, I discussed how science works. It’s not a belief. It’s not a random set of rules. It is a rational and logical process to determine cause and effect in the natural world. Pseudoscience, by its very nature, ignores the scientific process; instead, it claims to come to conclusions through science, usually by using scientific sounding words, but actually avoids the scientific process. They tend to use logical fallacies to make their case. Just to be clear, logical fallacy is essentially an error of reasoning. When a pseudoscientist makes a claim, or attempts to persuade the public of this claim, and it is based on a bad piece of reasoning, they commit a fallacy.
There are several types of logical fallacies that they employ. My favorites are Appeals to Antiquity, or old ideas are somehow better than new ideas; Appeals to Authority, or someone who should know better supports the claim even if everyone else does not; Appeals to Popularity, or everyone does it, so it must be useful; and the Genetic Fallacy, where the source is more matter than the merits of the evidence. Logical fallacies are so prevalent in skeptical community, there are websites devoted to describing them.
The typical pseudoscientist will use logical fallacies to state very definitively that “it’s proven.” It’s the same whether it’s creationism (the belief that some magical being created the world some small number of years ago), alternative medicine (homeopathy, which is nothing but water, has magical properties to cure everything from cancer to male pattern baldness), or vaccine denialists (I’ve discussed this topic before, no need to belabor). The worst problem is that in the world of the internet, if you google these beliefs, the number of websites and hits that seem to state that they are THE TRUTH overwhelm those that are more skeptical or critical.
So how can you tell the difference between science and pseudoscience in medicine? In medicine, we gather and analyze evidence in one of two ways.
Almost any medical product, device, drug or procedure must, by law, must studied in a Randomized Controlled Trial, which is sometimes called a clinical trial. Essentially, it is a scientific experiment, designed to test the hypothesis of whether the safety and efficacy of a particular medical product is better than a placebo. That is, does the medical product produce results better than doing nothing at all. This is the “gold standard” of investigation, and if the study does confirm the hypothesis, you can be assured it has a benefit to your life (although the degree may be subject to argument). Alternative medicine just doesn’t do this (most of their reasoning is that their beliefs just doesn’t fit into the clinical trial model), so their is no proof that their products work. A clinical trial usually has thousands of participants, and is done in a manner that the patient and the physician do not know who is and who is not receiving the treatment. The results are analyzed statistically and published in peer-reviewed journals. Furthermore, the results are reviewed and investigated by the FDA (and legal bodies in other countries), before a drug or device can be used by a physician. This is an expensive and time-consuming process, in which alternative medicine hardly ever participates.
Now it’s not ethical to test every medical hypothesis with a clinical trial. For example, we know that smoking is bad for your health. Yet, tobacco manufacturers love to insist that there has never been a clinical trial that makes this conclusion. The reason that is true is that it would be unethical to give one group of adults cigarettes for 20 years and another group nothing to see if one would die at a higher rate. So we use epidemiological studies to determine if we can see in a population whether a cause has an effect. We can review records of thousands of smokers to see what the effect will be. Once again, pushers of alternative medicine therapies have not published a study of all the patients who might have used their therapy and see the result. Epidemiology is a scientific process that is critical to preventative medicine–without it, we cannot know if some behavior or public health issue has a causal effect on health.
Remember, anecdotes (“my mother’s friend’s cousin’s daughter was cured by eating this leaf”) are not reasons to accept alternative medicine. Even anecdotes that try to sound like science (“90 out of 100 people think this leaf does work”) aren’t a reason to “believe” in a pseudoscience.
You might have heard that taking lots of Vitamin C helps prevent colds. It doesn’t. And that conclusions is supported by large clinical trials, so unless you are afflicted by scurvy, there’s no reason to take large doses of the vitamin. And that’s the difference between real science and pseudoscience.
I decided to write a three-part article here that partially describes how they make their case, not necessarily why humans accept it so easily. I’m not a psychiatrist, and I certainly don’t play one on TV. I thought we should start with the scientific method, or how real science works.
I always get suspicious when someone makes an argument with the statement of “it’s been proven to work”, “the link is proven”, or, alternatively, they state some negative about scientifically supported therapies. Typically, I hear these kinds of statements from the pseudoscience pushing crowd. For example, real science has debunked the “there is a proven link between vaccines and autism,” a common and popular pseudoscientific belief. Or that most alternative medicine (CAM) therapies work based on numerous logical fallacies that suspends reason, and accepts “belief” in the therapy, something that evidence-based medicine just doesn’t do.
In fact, science rarely uses the term “proven”, because the scientific method is not a system to make a definitive answer on any question–scientists always leave open the possibility of an alternative hypothesis that can be tested. If the alternate hypothesis can be supported through experimentation, then it can replace the original one. When an alternative medicine or junk science supporter states “it has been proven,” ask where is the evidence. What is more troubling is that someone who believes in these therapies cannot imagine that they don’t work, what is called falsification, which is a hallmark of good science. Whenever I hear that a scientist say, “we were wrong, it doesn’t work,” my retort is “excellent, good science.”
The scientific method is an unbiased systematic approach to answer questions about the natural world, including medicine. It has several basic steps:
- Define the question–this could be anything from “does this compound have an effect on this disease?” or “how does this disease progress?”
- Observations–this is the subjective part of science. Do we observe trends or anomalies? Does a physician notice that every patient from a town or neighborhood exhibit the same disease? A lot of science arises from observations of the natural world. One of the most famous stories in the early history of medicine is when Edward Jenner observed that milkmaids rarely were infected by smallpox because they were exposed to cowpox, a less virulent disease.
- Hypothesis–taking the observations, create a hypothesis that can be tested. In Jenner’s case, he hypothesized that exposure to cowpox immunized individuals to small pox.
- Experiment–simply, the scientist then tests the hypothesis with experiments and collect the data. The experiments are not designed to solely validate the hypothesis but may also attempt to contradict it.
- Analyze–this requires statistics to determine the significance or results.
- Interpret–sometimes the data leads to a revision of the hypothesis, which means the scientist has to return to steps 3-6. Or it confirms or supports the hypothesis, which means the researcher can move to Step 7.
- Publish results–in today’s scientific community, the results require peer-review, which subjects the data, analysis and interpretation to the scrutiny of other scientists before publication. This is a critical step that ensures that the results can stand up to criticism. It does not prove anything, but it does support the hypothesis.
- Retesting–Many times the research is repeated by others, or the hypothesis may be slightly revised with additional data. Science is not static, it constantly revises theories as more data is gathered. For this reason alone, science is not an absolute, it is constantly seeking new data.
Science is an evidence-based systematic analysis without inherent opinion or emotion. In other words, it is a method to cut through opinions and anecdotal observations, so that one can have some reasonable expectation that a medicine or device will work as planned. CAM fails to utilize scientific method. Supporters of CAM usually perform experiments to confirm the hypothesis, never to contradict it. It is the fundamental principle of falsifiability, that is, that if a hypothesis is false, it can be shown in experimentation that allows science to have an open mind about the world. When you speak to a believer of CAM, they almost never assume that their treatment cannot work.
It’s interesting that CAM and pseudoscience start out with observations of the real world. For example, CAM therapies sometimes work, not because of the therapies themselves, but because humans just get better from many diseases. So, these CAM therapies rely upon confirmation bias, that is, the tendency to accept information that supports your beliefs, or even post hoc ergo propter hoc, a logical fallacy which says “since that event followed this one, that event must have been caused by this one.” Humans too often conflate correlation and causation. Just because events follow one another, that doesn’t mean one causes the other. I suppose that’s how superstitions arise.
Part 2 of this discussion will be out as soon as I write it. It will discuss how to tell what is “proven” or what is science. Stay tuned.