Katie Couric doubles down on the Gardasil false balance


Revised 10 December 2013.

If you weren’t aware, on 4 December 2013, Katie Couric, a fairly popular USA-based journalist with her own eponymous TV talk show, Katie, did a report about Gardasil (formally known as the HPV quadrivalent vaccine and also called Silgard in Europe). Essentially, Couric interviewed several individuals who claim, without any evidence (and lacking any clue about statistical analysis) that Gardasil harmed their children. Couric gave about a minute of time to ONE physician to explain the safety and effectiveness of Gardasil, as opposed to the heartbreaking, but ultimately irrelevant, stories from parents who needed to blame something for what had happened, and chose Gardasil. As opposed to depression, diet soda, bottled water, air pollution, bad TV shows, or that fake butter that the movie theaters use.

As I wrote before, Gardasil is incredibly safe, as shown in massive and well-designed epidemiological studies. It prevents HPV (human papillomavirus) infection, a sexually transmitted disease. And in case you think it’s just some benign virus, HPV is directly responsible for cervical cancer, anal cancer, vulvar cancer, vaginal cancer, oropharyngeal cancer and penile cancer. These are all deadly, disfiguring, and potentially preventable cancers through the use of HPV vaccines.

In other words, Couric, in the ultimate example of false balance–Couric believed that both sides of a scientific “debate” are equivalent in quality of opinion and evidence. But rarely is this true, especially in scientific principles that have been well-studied and supported by a massive amount of evidence. The safety and efficacy of vaccines is supported by the vast consensus of real science. The antivaccination side has no evidence, so it must rely upon logical fallacies and cherry picked data, and lack any real, world-class contingent of scientists who have stepped up to change the consensus with real evidence. Continue reading “Katie Couric doubles down on the Gardasil false balance”

The long history of the antivaccination movement–plus their theme song

The rousing anti-vaccination hymn.

This week was a bit depressing to be pro science (and by association, pro-vaccine). As I discussed, Katie Couric employed the full false balance fallacy to the extreme to try to “prove” that the Gardasil vaccine was somehow dangerous, based on the anecdotal, and ultimately unscientific, stories. That’s not science. That’s not good journalism. And that goes against real science and real clinical trials which, startlingly, comes to a conclusion that Gardasil is safe and very effective.

Oh, then in response to the intense criticism, Couric doubled-down on the false balance

I needed something to mock the antivaccination movement, something to remind me that these people are, in general, crackpots of the highest order. 

Continue reading “The long history of the antivaccination movement–plus their theme song”

Proliferation of fake peer-review journals

peer_reviewScientific skepticism is the noble pursuit and accumulation of evidence, based on the scientific method, which is used to  question and doubt claims and assertions. A scientific skeptic will hold the accumulation of evidence as fundamentally critical to the examining of claims. Moreover, a true skeptic does not accept all evidence as being equal in quality, but, in fact, will give  more weight to evidence which is derived from the scientific method and less weight to poorly obtained and poorly scrutinized evidence.

In the world of real scientific skepticism, evidence published in a peer-reviewed, high impact factor journal far outweighs evidence taken from other sources. Peer review is the evaluation of a scientific work by one or more people of similar competence (usually in the same field) to the producers of the work. Mostly, the peer review is blinded, in that the reviewers generally don’t know the authors (although it may not be difficult to uncover, especially if the paper is in an esoteric field of science). Peer review constitutes a form of self-policing of science by qualified members of a profession within the field of research. It is through this system of criticism and review that makes many journals, and the articles published within, powerful pieces of evidence in science.

In addition to peer review, there are other ways to ascertain the quality of research in a particular journal. Articles in high quality journals are cited more often because high quality journals just attract the best scientific articles. Higher quality journals employ a more meticulous and exhaustive peer-review.

Although somewhat controversial, journals are ranked using a metric called “impact factor” that essentially expresses numerically how many times an average article in a particular journal is cited by other articles in an index of all other journals in the same general field. The impact factor could range from 0 (no one ever cites it) to some huge number, but the largest is in the 50-70 range. One of the highest impact factor journals is the Annual Review of Immunology, which is traditionally has an impact factor in the 50′s–this would indicate that an average article published in that journal is cited by other medical articles an average of 50 times (an outstanding number). Continue reading “Proliferation of fake peer-review journals”

Judging the quality of science sources


Note: this article has been substantially updated, just click the link.


Recently, I wrote articles on skepticism and debunking pseudoscience, both of which require large amounts of evidence. And of course, a true scientific skeptic needs to judge the quality of evidence, because individuals who push science denialism often cherry pick seemingly high quality science to support their beliefs.

A good scientific skeptic needs to decipher the science (or pseudoscience) in popular news articles, for example, to determine its validity. We should be critical, if not skeptical, of what is written in these articles to ascertain what is or is not factually scientific. We even need to determine the quality of science from the best to the weakest, so that we can determine the level of authority of the science before we pass it along to others.

With the social media, like Facebook and Twitter, which provides us with data that may not exceed a few words, then it’s even more imperative that we separate the absurd (bananas kill cancer) from the merely misinterpreted (egg yolks are just as bad as smoking).

Wikipedia is one place which can either be an outstanding resource for science or medicine, or it can just a horrible mess with citations to pseudoscience, junk medicine pushers. For example, Wikipedia’s article on Alzheimer’s disease is probably one of the best medical articles in the “encyclopedia”. It is laid out in a logical manner, with an excellent summary, a discussion of causes, pathophysiology, mechanisms, treatments, and other issues. It may not be at the level of a medical review meant for a medical student or researcher, but it would be a very good start for a scientifically inclined college researcher or someone who had a family who was afflicted with the disease.

Continue reading “Judging the quality of science sources”

Science votes for human-caused global warming in a landslide

climate-change-consensusI don’t discuss anthropogenic global warming (AGW, or climate change caused by human activities) very often, more just in oft-handed ways, lumping anthropogenic global warming deniers into the whole pseudoscience crowd–antivaccinationists, anti-GMO loudmouths, evolution deniers, HIV/AIDS deniers, and other anti-science fads. To be honest, I was scientifically skeptical about global warming, not because of any political motivation, but because the evidence I reviewed seemed weak at best. But I was guilty of my own confirmation bias, and more than that, I was honestly more interested in other current trends in science than climate change. 

Now, I was never a skeptic (kind of improperly used in my case, I really thought I had examined it scientifically) about global warming itself. I observed changes over my long lifetime, including one year in the early 1980’s when ski resorts in Utah were open well into July. And the Great Salt Lake was heading to levels not seen since the ice age. When I was in grad school in New York, it snowed on July 4th. This doesn’t happen much anymore (and it really isn’t evidence of global warming, but it’s always good when my personal anecdotes are supported by good science). Moreover, the real science, the real numbers, showed that the earth was warming up. Continue reading “Science votes for human-caused global warming in a landslide”

One lunatic is dangerous to children–The Jenny McCarthy Story

Screen Shot 2013-07-16 at 15.00.31Unless you’re a skeptic living under a rock on Mars (which would be pretty amazing), you’d know that the Playboy Playmate Jenny McCarthy was chosen by ABC TV (in the USA) to be a co-host on the daytime talk show, The View. Let’s just say that this has not been met positively by much of the skeptical, pro-science blogging and journalism community. In fact, from what I’ve read, hardly anyone but the vaccine denier lunatic fringe is happy about her choice a co-host.

But this isn’t just complaining about an actress getting a job on a TV show. On my personal list of things I care about, I care very little about who is or isn’t the host on The View, a show that I have honestly never watched. And given that Jenny is going to be on it, I have even less interest in watching it.

The real reason why so many of us were upset had nothing to do with her being a bad actress, but because her beliefs about vaccines are plainly untrue and unsupported by the vast wealth of science. And now she might have a platform to hawk her misguided conviction that vaccines are dangerous. Because Americans are so easily seduced by a celebrity endorsement (about 25% of Americans trust celebrities), her comments carry more weight than real physicians and scientific researchers.  Continue reading “One lunatic is dangerous to children–The Jenny McCarthy Story”

The vote on Jenny McCarthy–a resounding NO

“McCarthy’s view on vaccines stirs ‘View’ controversy” USA TODAY (July 16, 2013) 

“Actress to Fill One Vacancy in the Cast of ‘The View’” The New York Times (July 15, 2013) 

“Viruses Don’t Care About Your View: Why ABC Shouldn’t Have Hired Jenny McCarthy” TIME (July 15, 2013) 

“Jenny McCarthy: The Danger of Medical Celebrity” Forbes (July 15, 2013)

“Jenny McCarthy on ‘View’: A new forum for discredited autism theories” Los Angeles Times (July 15, 2013) 

“Jenny McCarthy on The View — not The Medically Correct View, Just The View” Washington Post (July 15, 2013) 

“What Jenny McCarthy Should Do Before Her View Debut” Forbes (July 16, 2013) 

“Jenny McCarthy joins ‘The View’” USA TODAY (July 15, 2013)

“Bill Nye: Jenny McCarthy’s Errant Views On Childhood Vaccines May Be Discredited On ‘The View’” Huffington Post (July 15, 2013) 

OPINION: “She plays one on TV” New York Daily News (July 16, 2013) 

“Science Community Is Furious Over Jenny McCarthy’s New Job On ‘The View’” Business Insider (July 15, 2013) 

“The View Hires Notorious Anti-Vaxxer Jenny McCarthy” Slate’s Bad Astronomy (July 15, 2013) 

“ABC’s hiring of Jenny McCarthy: a decision that could cost lives” Boston.com (July 15, 2013) 

OPINION: “ABC shouldn’t give McCarthy platform: Column” USA TODAY (July 15, 2013) 

“Jenny McCarthy joins ‘The View’ as co-host” TODAY (July 15, 2013) 

“Anti-Vaccine Evangelist Jenny McCarthy Is the New Elisabeth Hasselbeck” New York Magazine (July 15, 2013) 

“Jenny McCarthy’s ‘View’ Announcement Stirs Up Snark on Twitter” The Hollywood Reporter (July 15, 2013)

“ABC’s Jenny McCarthy Vs. ABC’s Actual Doctor on Vaccines” New Republic (July 15, 2013) 

“Jenny McCarthy to Join ‘The View’” The Daily Beast (July 15, 2013)

“Anti-Vaccine Activist Jenny McCarthy to Join ‘The View’” Politix (July 16, 2013) 

“Jenny McCarthy To Bring Her Anti-Vaccine Activism To ‘The View’ As New Co-Host” Think Progress (July 15, 2013) 

“Jenny McCarthy: An antivaccine ‘View’ is hired” Respectful Insolence (July 16, 2013) 

“Should Jenny McCarthy’s Vaccine Opinions Keep Her Off The View?” Pop Blend (July 15, 2013) 

(A special thanks to fellow blogger, Karen Ernst, for creating and editing this list.)

Where’s the common sense in the GMO discussion?

gmo_protestMy job here is to push science, and push it hard.  And I’m not pushing “science” as some esoteric philosophy of academia, but as a relatively easy system of gathering evidence in support of (or alternatively, in refutation of) what people believe. There isn’t some button you push to get “science”, even though way too many people think that click on a Google search qualifies as science (and evidence supporting their “science”). I try to call out false equivalences, that is, that all evidence is equal, even if one side of the “debate” has low quality or even no evidence. I try to provide methods to rank evidence, so that an average reader can get an indication of the quality of evidence supporting a pseudoscientific or anti-science belief, which allows anyone to make a better critical analysis of what is written.

But sometimes, you don’t even need science. Just common sense, something woefully lacking in many of the anti-science memes that seem to easily circulate across social media these days.

When I wrote an article about Richard Dawkin’s comments on genetically modified organisms (GMO) agriculture, I got a lot of comments on Reddit, Facebook, Twitter, and comments here. One of those sources lead me to an article by one of the world’s top scientists, Nina Fedoroff, a Penn State University faculty member, who actually studies biotechnology, and, more specifically, in the field of transposable elements or “jumping genes,” one of the major beliefs of GMO refusers. Her scientific bonafides are public, including being past President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and a member of the National Academy of Sciences, probably one of the most prestigious institutions in science. That she is also an alumna of Syracuse University is just a bonus.  Continue reading “Where’s the common sense in the GMO discussion?”

High fructose corn syrup is addictive-myth vs science

sugarByAnyOtherNameOver the past couple of weeks there have been numerous articles in the blogosphere that state, with a few variations, that high fructose corn syrup is addictive as cocaine. Wow, that’s quite a statement. In fact, one article, High-Fructose Corn Syrup “as Addictive as Cocaine”, doesn’t even make any caveats to that statement. They simply conclude that, “similar to cocaine addiction, the researchers say that some people are more vulnerable to food addiction than others, which explains why some are obese and some are not.” Setting aside the fact that food addiction is an eating disorder with a psychological basis, and more often than not includes foods that don’t contain high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), let’s look at the study that seems to have caused this myth that it is as “addictive as cocaine.”

Before we examine the article that is the basis of these claims, let’s find out a bit more about HFCS. But first, we need a little sugar biochemistry just to give the reader some background. There are two broad types of sugars, aldose and ketose, along with over twenty individual, naturally-found sugars, called monosaccharides. Of all of those sugars, only four play any significant role in human nutrition: glucosefructosegalactose, and ribose (which has a very minor nutritional role, though a major one as the backbone of DNA and RNA). Got that? Four sugars. Whatever you eat, however you consume it, you can only absorb 4 sugars. Continue reading “High fructose corn syrup is addictive-myth vs science”