Logical fallacies Part 1-Anti-vaccination gang’s naturalistic fallacy

In this blog, the term “logical fallacy” is used frequently to illustrate a logical or rational failure of a particular argument. There are several definitions of what constitutes a logical fallacy:

[pullquote]❝A logical fallacy is, roughly speaking, an error of reasoning. When someone adopts a position, or tries to persuade someone else to adopt a position, based on a bad piece of reasoning, they commit a fallacy.❞–Logical Fallacies[/pullquote]

[pullquote]❝An argument that sometimes fools human reasoning, but is not logically valid.❞–Fallacious Argument[/pullquote]

[pullquote]❝In logic and rhetoric, a fallacy is usually an improper argumentation in reasoning resulting in a misconception or presumption. By accident or design, fallacies may exploit emotional triggers in the listener or interlocutor (appeal to emotion), or take advantage of social relationships between people (e.g. argument from authority). Fallacious arguments are often structured using rhetorical patterns that obscure any logical argument.❞–Wikipedia[/pullquote] Continue reading “Logical fallacies Part 1-Anti-vaccination gang’s naturalistic fallacy”

The Zombie Apocalypse or vaccine myths that won’t die

Pseudoscience pushing individuals can be likened to zombies.  They have no brains, and their only goal in life is to eat the brains of those who don’t adhere to their position.  The anti-vaccine crowd are my favorite zombies, because the metaphor can be further extended because the victims of these zombies can die (the logical result of non-vaccination).

Yesterday, I ran across this YouTube video by someone called the PatriotNurse.  As an aside, WordPress (the blogging software I use) allows for embedding of YouTube videos, which is perfectly within my programming capabilities.  But for some unknown, and admittedly perplexing reason, PatriotNurse disabled the embedding feature.  Lacking evidence, I won’t speculate as to why.  She also has disabled comments to her video by stating, “The comments are OFF for many reasons. Foremost is that I refuse to be abused for a contrarian viewpoint that goes against mainstream “Sickcare.”  In other words, she refuses to allow her zombie ideas to be shown in the bright light of the day.  Also, if you look at her other videos, well, let’s just say I’m concerned about who trained her as a nurse and who would currently employ her, but that’s not the point here.

Basically she uses the standard repertoire of unsupported claims, canards and fairytales that most vaccine denialists use to make their case.  Every once in a while we should list out all their claims, debunk them, and refer to them in the future.  The anti-evolution crowd, which probably relies upon 100 times more myths than the anti-vaccine group, has spawned a few websites that list out creationist claims, then thoroughly debunks them.  At this time, the anti-vax websites focus on just a few claims, all of which are easily dismissed.

In order of weakness of the argument, here we go!

  • After my friend’s neighbor’s cousin’s sister-in-law’s daughter was vaccinated, she got….This argument is a typical example of the logical fallacy called post hoc ergo propter hoc or post-hoc fallacy, a Latin phrase which literally means, “after this therefore because of this.”  In other words, just because one event follows another event, one cannot conclude the first event caused the second event.  Or even that they are even peripherally related.  One of the worst mistakes in science is conflating correlation (this event happens when another event happens) with causation (that one event actually causes the second event).  Let’s put it this way.  I’m sure a certain percentage of children who are vaccinated break there arms in a fall, get a cold, or draw on the wall with a pen.  I’m sure some of us recall such an event.  But are they related to the vaccination?  Well, I’m sure someone would make a case that the child going to the pediatrician’s office to get a vaccine picks up a cold from another kid, but that’s a perfect example of pure coincidence.  In other words, without providing a logical mechanism for the correlation, then causation is far from proven.
  • Everyone I know who gets a vaccination gets sick, paralyzed, or (put almost anything here).  Similar to the post-hoc fallacy, it depends on a confirmation bias, that is, individuals look for evidence that supports their own beliefs or assumptions, ignoring all else.  Of course, the vast majority of children or adults that get vaccinated do not have any serious side effects (nota bene: I chose one of literally thousands of articles that dismiss any serious side effects from vaccines).  Essentially, this claim barely rises above personal anecdote.
  • Vaccines cause autism.  I’m not even sure this claim should be discussed because it’s been so thoroughly and scientifically quashed, it is almost sad that it’s still used as an excuse to not vaccinate.  But since this is supposed to be a thorough list, I’ll go through the debunking again.  Andrew Wakefield, who first invented the claim in a article in the British medical journal, The Lancet. Eventually, several co-authors removed their names from the paper in 2004, and finally the article was fully retracted by the journal in 2010.  Finally, Wakefield was found to be a fraud.  Still, the anti-vax conspiracists believe that vaccines cause autism, despite substantial evidence in peer reviewed journals (pdf file).  Since all the evidence dismisses the claim, but it’s still trotted out by anti-vaxers, one can only reply with the evidence.
  • Vaccines contain mercury.  In the past, a mercury-organic compound called thimerosal was used as a preservative in certain vaccines, especially those that were labeled for multiple doses (vaccines vials are often doses of 10).  But to be perfectly clear, thimerosal is not metallic mercury floating in the vial, it is a compound that is bound up in a rather large organic molecule, meaning that the mercury itself is inaccessible to the body and will be excreted.  Cans of tuna, a typical childhood meal, contains several times more mercury in the form of methyl mercury, which is easily absorbed by the gut and can be dangerous.  Vaccines that contain thiomersal contain about 25µg (or mcg or micrograms) of mercury.  A 125g (about 4 oz) portion of canned tuna contains about the same amount.
  • Vaccines contain mercury–but injected is worse than eating it.  The discussion then moves to the myth that ingesting mercury from foods is somehow better than getting it injected.  Before we continue, remember the mercury in vaccines is thiomersal which is bound up by a relatively large organic molecule.  This is a method used in a lot of pharmacological applications to isolate toxic metals from the body, but still derive a benefit from them.  Contrast agents used in enhanced radiology exams (like CT’s) contain iodine, also fairly toxic.  The organic molecule protects the patient from the toxic effects, while soon after the exam (usually within 30 minutes), the contrast agent is excreted.  The same with thiomersal.  Ingested mercury, in the form of methyl mercury (found in most fish), is actually absorbed faster, and methyl mercury also disperses to more organ systems because it mimics an essential amino acid, methionone. There are no physiological mechanisms that block the uptake of a small molecule like methyl mercury, so the effect might be worse than thiomersal.
  • Vaccines contain mercury, oh my.  Except, they don’t contain mercury, save for some flu vaccines.  So, not only eating tuna sandwiches is a larger mercury source, vaccines is not a mercury source.
  • Vaccines contain aluminum.  So we dispensed with the mercury myth, but a new one shows up.  In this case, vaccines do contain aluminum, in the form of aluminum salts.  It is used as an adjuvant to increase the immune response of the vaccine, an important requirement to confer immunity to the disease.  However, more aluminum comes from food sources (like breast milk) than from vaccines.  “During the first 6 months of life, infants could receive about 4 milligrams of aluminum from vaccines. That’s not very much: a milligram is one-thousandth of a gram and a gram is the weight of one-fifth of a teaspoon of water. During the same period, babies will also receive about 10 milligrams of aluminum in breast milk, about 40 milligrams in infant formula, or about 120 milligrams in soy-based formula.
  • Vaccines bypass the gut which is our best immune defense system.  It’s hard to disprove something that has no basis in real physiology.  If this claim were true, of course, we’d never be afflicted by most pathogens, and we wouldn’t need vaccines.  The adaptive immune response to immunizations requires interaction with the internal organs and blood.
  • Too many vaccinations. While listening to video (I couldn’t bear to watch), PatriotNurse mentioned another old canard about too many vaccine doses given to infants and toddlers.  Apparently, the anti-vaccination zombies need to run from one debunked myth to another one.  Paul Offit, much hated by the anti-vaccine gang, has stated that “Vaccines do not overwhelm the immune system. Although the infant immune system is relatively naive, it is immediately capable of generating a vast array of protective responses; even conservative estimates predict the capacity to respond to thousands of vaccines simultaneously”, that “multiple vaccinations do not weaken the immune system,” and that “vaccines represent a minute fraction of what a child’s immune system routinely navigates; the average child is infected with 4–6 viruses per year.”
  • It’s a Big Pharma conspiracy.  This conspiracy is huge, because it includes the CDC, FDA, major medical journals, physicians, and, of course, the pharmaceutical industry.  Of all the logical fallacies, the Appeal to a Grand Conspiracy is one of the most annoying.  It is difficult to disprove, because the vaccine conspiracists don’t provide any real evidence for their assertion.  Since extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, their claim lacks even bad evidence.

There might be other arguments that they use, and I’ll be finding them and debunking them.  In the meantime, I’m going to create a vaccine FAQ that debunks these things.

Rosa Rubicondior: Where Creationists Get Confused.

Rosa Rubicondior: Where Creationists Get Confused..

Modern Tree of Life

Creationists utilize numerous logical fallacies to either “disprove” evolution (using rhetoric and religious text) or to “prove” creationism.  Usually, however, they stick with trying to showing how evolution is wrong, thereby, implying that creationism is correct.  (I’m going to set aside the fallacy that by simply disproving evolution one proves creationism, you still have to provide evidence for creationism itself.)

I could list them all from “it’s only a theory”, which ignores the fact that a scientific theory stands at the top of hierarchy of scientific thought, essentially considered a fact, to Charles Darwin renouncing evolution on his deathbed, which he didn’t.  One of my favorites is the wholesale misunderstanding (either intentionally or through complete ignorance of science) of taxonomy.  As Rosa Rubicondior states:

Creationists, either disingenuously, or because of genuine ignorance, seem to have missed the whole point of taxonomy, so they continually make idiotic mistakes which, even though they might imagine them to be valid arguments against evolution, are recognised by those who understand the subject as evidence only of their ignorance. And, with so much information readily and freely available, this ignorance can ONLY be either deliberate or feigned. No one remotely interested in the subject has any excuse for their level of ignorance.

If any has ever heard the creationist meme of “if man evolved from apes, then why are there apes still around,” then you would understand the statement above.  Simply put, man evolved from a primate common ancestor (which lead to all the great apes, including chimpanzees and gorillas) about 4-8 million years ago.  The common ancestor is not around, but human primate relatives do.  In biological terms, the divergence into the various great apes (Family Hominidae) is quite recent.  The evidence is not based on supposition and guesswork, there are vast amounts of scientific literature supporting this family tree.

I find these types of arguments from creationists show a complete lack of knowledge of biological sciences, except at the most superficial level.  If one looks at the tree of life as a bunch of endpoints without understanding how the tree is built.  Of course, if they read these posts from Rosa Rubicondior and others, they would understand it.  But I guess I’ll have to agree with Rosa:

Even more unforgivable are those who assiduously maintain their own ignorance by refusing to read anything, like this blog, which might cause them to abandon their cherished beliefs, for these are the people who are quite deliberately and consciously fooling themselves into believing what they know to be false.  These will be the ones who are constantly asking what they like to think are the ‘killer knock-down’ questions of biologists and who then ignore the answers and ask the same questions again next week.  You only need to read their sanctimonious condescension and pretence to have greater knowledge than the scientists who spend years learning and researching the subject, to see what they are getting out of their intellectual dishonesty.

I wish there were creationists who actually had a scientific background (and there are a few), because the debate is just dull with those who are not.  Their knowledge of science is so lacking that I wonder if they consider how much evolutionary science is built into the medical care they receive.  Of course, I guess that’s why faith healing exists.

How pseudoscience makes its case. Part 4.

This is my continuing multi-part discussion about how pseudoscience uses logical fallacies, strawman arguments, and other rhetoric to make its case, rather than real science.  Just click on the links to read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

The other day I engaged in a discussion with a well-meaning pharmacist who claimed that vitamin C could treat colds and prevent other diseases like  “cancer” (I always get annoyed  by people who lump all cancers together, when there are over 200 different cancers, all of which have different histologies, genetics, and causes).  Of course, there are a number of well-controlled clinical trials that show that vitamin C has no effect on the common cold and has no effect on cancers so far studied (see this, this, this and this).

During our discussion, she said “science should be neutral,” with the implication that I wasn’t neutral.  I happen to agree, science should be neutral and it should balanced.  But science should be based upon the scientific method not rhetoric and not using science-y words, at which the writers of Star Trek were well-versed.

So, when I say that I am (or any evidence-based real scientist), “scientifically neutral”, that means I’m willing to weigh the evidence and publications on real scientific issues.  I am not a geologist nor a paleontologist, but I was studying biochemistry when the earliest theories on what caused the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction event 65.5 million years ago, where all the dinosaurs (well, not all, since technically modern birds are surviving dinosaurs from a cladistic point of view) and some 75% of all extant genera died out or were killed.  In 1980, Luis Alvarez, a brilliant theoretical physicist whose career was extraordinary, along with his son, Walter Alvarez (a geologist), and Frank Asaro, published an article that describe a sedimentary layer across the world that included a rare element, iridium, usually found in extraterrestrial objects like meteors and comets.  The layer fell right at the geological boundary layer that defines the extinction event, so they proposed that the dinosaurs were wiped out by a huge comet or asteroid.

Today, this accepted as a scientific theory with tons of confirming evidence (although some scientists aren’t fully convinced, though they still propose some natural event).  But at the time, it was ridiculed, and scientific meetings were quite energetic in discussions.  The point is that the impact theory displaced the prevailing scientific theory of the extinction event (well, there were several).  One theory replaced another not by rhetoric or appeals to antiquity (that one theory was around forever) or anything else.  In fact, one scientific hypothesis was replaced by another and eventually developed into a solid theory.

We should be neutral in science, reviewing the evidence, then coming to conclusions.  The Alvarez father-son team provided that, and eventually there was overwhelming evidence with the finding and dating of the Chicxulub impact crater in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico.

Using scientific neutrality, vitamin C doesn’t work, not because I have an opinion, but because there is no science supporting its efficacy.  There are some articles that support its use in preventing or treating colds, or megadoses for curing cancer, but those articles are in low-impact (meaning obscure) journals or with poorly designed, or non-blinded trials.  My friendly neighborhood pharmacist was stating that I should be neutral between real science and well, nothing at all.  That’s not balance, that’s a close-mindedness to science and the scientific method.  That’s using opinion as the balance to scientific knowledge.  The only thing that should balance scientific knowledge is more scientific knowledge.

Don’t fall for the trap that you should be “open-minded” or neutral to anti-science or pseudoscience.  Open-mindedness and neutrality are expectations that you will balance real scientific evidence, not treat the rhetoric as if it has equal weight to scientific method.

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.


How pseudoscience makes its case. Part 2.

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.

How pseudoscience makes its case. Part 1.

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:

  1. Define the question–this could be anything from “does this compound have an effect on this disease?” or “how does this disease progress?”
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Analyze–this requires statistics to determine the significance or results.
  6. 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.
  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.
  8. 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.

Welcome to my world

A Skeptical Raptor’s native environment is the jungles of the internet, where junk science, pseudoscience, myths, logical fallacies, and outright lies survive unchecked. The Raptor has evolved over several million years to hunt down these anti-science prey, scaring them away from the average reader. Remember, a Raptor is missing some table manners, so the prey may not be treated very nicely.

OK, let me set aside the metaphors.  As you can see in my about me page, my background has been in the sciences, medicine and business. But the great thing about a strong science background is it teaches you critical thinking skills and the scientific method.  The scientific method isn’t mixing oxygen and hydrogen to make water, but it is the logical progression from observation to hypothesis to data to analysis to publication to review.  But science is not static, it is self critical, constantly reviewing itself, improving, discarding, or just supporting its theories.  What you’ll find is that the anti-science thinking is not self critical, because it considers improvement some sort of weakness.

I’m going to get this out of the way upfront.  I am a supporter of Big Pharma and the medical products industry in general.  Do I think they do no wrong?  No I don’t, I think that too often decisions are made based on business realities rather than medical ones.  However, despite some of the appeals to conspiracy about which I constantly read, most individuals in the industry are devoted to making human life better.  It is their only goal.  And despite some of the claims of the anti-science crowd, Big Pharma has saved many many many more lives than it has harmed.  Vaccines would be the #1 piece of evidence of that.  Polio, pertussis, measles, rubella, and many other diseases are no longer (well, not until recently, thanks to another anti-science group) a part of our cultural memory because of Big Pharma.

But I’ll talk about these issues over time.  I like writing for humor and critique, not for tremendous scientific analysis worthy of a Nobel Prize.  There are lots of bloggers, all of whom I respect beyond anything, who write about these topics in depth.  I will link to them, in case my skin-deep analysis annoys you.

So here goes.  Let’s see if I can do this.