“False balanced” reporting of autism-vaccine manufactroversy

In the real world of science-based medicine, the link between autism and vaccines (particularly, the MMR vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella) has been thoroughly debunked, quashed, and discredited. In the delusional world of the vaccine denialists, the link between autism and vaccines is based on MrAndy Wakefield‘s paper alleging a connection between MMR and autism that has been retracted by the Lancet medical journal.

Then why is there even a debate about this manufactroversy (a manufactured or invented controversy)? Well, researchers actually examined this false controversy in a recently published article, by Graham Dixon and Christopher Clarke of Cornell University, in Health Education Research. They investigated how the news media and journalists try to “falsely balance” their reporting about the debunked link between vaccines and autism. The journalists create this false balance, “despite a strong medical and scientific consensus backed by rigorous epidemiological studies indicating no link between autism and vaccines.” Dixon and Clarke also state that “research suggests that journalists in the United Kingdom and United States often report this controversy by presenting claims both for and against a link in a relatively ‘balanced’ fashion. In some cases, so-called ‘falsely balanced’ reporting fails to mention which claim is supported by a scientific consensus.” An overwhelming scientific consensus, by the way. Continue reading ““False balanced” reporting of autism-vaccine manufactroversy”

Richard III found under a parking lot–are we sure?

RichardIIIUnless you were living under a parking lot, you probably heard that the remains of King Richard III had been uncovered under a parking lot in Leicester, England. Richard III, who was King of England for only two years, 1483-5, died in the Battle of Bosworth Field, which was essentially the last battle of the civil war Wars of the Roses, the civil war between the Houses of Lancaster and York that raged across England in the latter half of the 15th century. The leader of the winning side, the Lancastrians, was Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, who became the first English monarch of the Tudor dynasty, Henry VII (and whose son included the infamous Henry VIII and granddaughters were Mary I and Elizabeth I). Richard was unceremoniously buried, which, over the centuries, was itself buried under the city of Leicester.

According to historical records, Richard III developed idiopathic scoliosis during his childhood, which was mocked by Shakespeare in his tragedy, Richard IIIContemporary historians wrote that Richard was killed by several blows to the head with swords and his helmet might have been knocked off during the battle. (Interestingly, Richard was the last British monarch to have died in battle.)

From these pieces of evidence, scientists from the University of Leicester drew upon historical evidence of both the scoliosis and the battle wounds and compared them to the skeleton found under the parking lot in Leicester. The scientists stated that the skeleton was Richard III “beyond a reasonable doubt.”  Continue reading “Richard III found under a parking lot–are we sure?”

Anti-GMO activist changes his mind–what does it really mean?

mark lynas for PMLet’s get this out upfront. There is no evidence that genetically modified food (which most people call GM or GMO) cause any harm to humans. None. And many people, myself included, consider anti-GMO activists to be nothing more than the left’s version of global warming denialists. The anti-GMO crowd use many of the same strategies and techniques of all science deniers, whether it’s vaccine-, global warming-, or evolutiondenialists:

  • logical fallacies
  • pseudoscience
  • hysterical claims
  • conspiracies
  • abject lack of real science

British environmentalist Mark Lynas was probably the heart of the anti-GMO movement, who as recently as 2008 railed that the big agricultural companies, like Monsanto, were lying that GM crops were necessary for feeding the world as the climate was changing. Basically, the only reason anyone today is questioning GMO crops is because of Lynas. Continue reading “Anti-GMO activist changes his mind–what does it really mean?”

Harvard hospital retracts statement about data on aspartame and cancer

This is a story about clinical research, misinterpreting said clinical research, an overaggressive Public Relations department, honest scientists, and good scientific journalism. Let’s start at the beginning.

This week, an article was published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition by Schernhammer et al., scientists from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a teaching affiliate of Harvard University Medical School, that examined potential risks of certain cancers in groups that consumed diet drinks. The study identified, over 22 years, 1324 non-Hodgkin lymphomas (NHLs), 285 multiple myelomas, and 339 leukemias. They then determined their intake of diet sodas (or pop, depending on your location in the United States).

They determined that:

  • Men who had greater than 1 daily serving of diet soda had increased risks of NHLs and multiple myeloma. Women had no observed increased risks.
  • They also observed an unexpected elevated risk of NHL with a higher consumption of regular, sugar-sweetened soda in men but not in women. 
  • Neither regular nor diet soda increased risk of leukemia but were associated with increased leukemia risk when data for men and women were combined.

Based on these results, you might think that diet sodas are dangerous, at least for men. Or maybe just sodas (or pop), whether sweetened with sugar or artificial sweeteners, are dangerous. Or maybe not. The authors themselves conclude:

Although our findings preserve the possibility of a detrimental effect of a constituent of diet soda, such as aspartame, on select cancers, the inconsistent sex effects and occurrence of an apparent cancer risk in individuals who consume regular soda do not permit the ruling out of chance as an explanation.

In other words, there’s really not much there. And that’s not bad in science. They tried to look for something, and they didn’t find anything. Maybe those men who drank sodas heavily had other confounding risk factors like obesity, diet, or other environmental factors. Or it may just be random.

At this point in the story, it’s just one of those published articles that really isn’t much of anything. No one would make much of it, because it really doesn’t provide much evidence that aspartame or sodas are that dangerous. 

Then Brigham and Women’s Hospital puts out a press release with an attention grabbing headline of “The truth isn’t sweet when it comes to artificial sweeteners.” Now, if you saw that headline, you would have assumed that the article provided a solid conclusion that there was a direct causal link between artificial sweeteners and certain cancers. But the article said no such thing, it showed a very weak link, if one at all.

I guess the real scientists at Harvard saw the press release and decided their reputations mattered more than marketing the hospital in an unethical way. But whatever the real story, the hospital issued an “apology”:

It has come to our attention that the scientific leaders at Brigham and Women’s Hospital did not have an opportunity, prior to today, to review the findings of the paper entitled Consumption of Artificial Sweetener and Sugar Containing Soda and the Risk of Lymphoma and Leukemia in Men and Women”, to be published in today’s Journal of Clinical Nutrition (sic). Upon review of the findings, the consensus of our scientific leaders is that the data is weak, and that BWH Media Relations was premature in the promotion of this work. We apologize for the time you have invested in this story.

Uh,  it’s actually the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, shocking they can’t get that right. Maybe I’m just being picky, but Public Relations should represent the organization better than that. 

Robert Bazell, NBC News reported that “the situation is a great example of why the public often finds science confusing and frustrating. After being asked some hard questions – and just before the report was to be released —  the hospital changed its tune.”

Bazell further reports that “the conclusion was so weak that the researchers had to submit it to six journals before they found a seventh, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, that would publish it. Few reporters read that journal. If it was not for the frightening headline no one would have known about this study.”

This study was a well-intended one that could have found a causal link if there was one, because of the way it sought out information. But it did not find the link, and that is how research is done. Sometimes, you find evidence of the null hypothesis, that artificial sweeteners don’t do anything.

And just in case there’s any confusion, Bazell reported that the lead author Schernhammer, when asked whether the published “research proves that aspartame is dangerous, she answered emphatically, ‘No, it does not.'”

The vast weight of evidence shows aspartame is safe. This doesn’t add to that weight, it just doesn’t support that it causes cancer. And it proves one more thing. Do NOT use press releases as your scientific proof source. They aren’t worth anything, because they aren’t written by scientists, and they are used to promote the facility. 

Drink your diet soda. Or pop. Your choice.

Key citations:

GMO opponents are the global warming denialists of the left

This article has been updated, revised, modernized, and zombified. Read that one instead.

Scientific denialism (also known as pseudoskepticism) is the culture of denying an established scientific theory, law or fact despite overwhelming evidence, and usually for motives of convenience. Sometimes those motives are to create political gain for their supporters.

Two of the most annoying denier viewpoints are the darlings of the right wing: evolution denialism and global warming denialism. The former is more commonly known as creationism and  is mostly an American phenomenon, though it is known in other countries. In the US, creationism is a fundamental part of the Republican Party strategy across the country. The latter is sometimes mistakenly called global warming skepticism, because “skeptic” was stolen by the pseudoskeptics, but plainly is a right-wing belief across the world, often intersecting closely with the evolution deniers. In fact, much of the anti-evolution legislation pushed by Republican legislatures in the United States has an anti-global warming component.

Global warming or evolution is supported by a massive mountain of scientific evidence. Both are theories that are ” well-substantiated explanations of some aspect of the natural world, based on a body of facts that have been repeatedly confirmed through observation and experiment.” As I have stated before, rhetoric and debate are not going to refute these theories. We demand scientific data, produced in world class laboratories that have been published in top tier, high quality journals, subject to withering criticism. After time, they will either be accepted into the body of evidence or rejected. That’s how science works. It’s not a political debate where the person with the loudest voice wins. Continue reading “GMO opponents are the global warming denialists of the left”

Quality of science sources in Wikipedia and the news

Several weeks ago, I wrote an article on how to decipher the science (or pseudoscience) in popular news articles. It discusses how 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 purveyors. For example, Wikipedia’s article on Alzheimer’s disease is probably one of the best medical articles on 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 “Quality of science sources in Wikipedia and the news”

Homeopathy companies pay journalist to attack anti-homeopathy academic

As I’ve discussed previously about homeopathy, there is absolutely no evidence that it does anything but quench thirst, since the basic principles of homeopathy is that. And even then, there are much cheaper methods to quench thirst, like getting water from your tap.

Not that it should surprise anyone, but it’s been reported that a consortium of homeopathy companies in Germany have been paying a “journalist” over $50,000 to set up and run a set of websites to criticize a UK academic, Professor Edzard Ernst, one of the world’s leading scientific skeptics of the lack of scientific viability of alternative medicine, specifically homeopathy. The original article, Schmutzige Methoden der sanften Medizin (or the Dirty Tricks of Alternative Medicine) was published in a German newspaper, described how the these companies, who manufacture homeopathic sugar pills, funded a journalist named Claus Fritzsche to denigrate any critics of homeopathy. He focused on Professor Ernst, by attacking him for being partisan, biased and incompetent, on several of these websites. He then linked them together in order to raise their Google ranking, so that any search for Professor Ernst and homeopathy would put these websites high on any list of Google hits. Continue reading “Homeopathy companies pay journalist to attack anti-homeopathy academic”

Checking for pseudoscience in real science news (updated)

One of the larger problems of the internet (OK, there are a lot) is how science is discussed out in the world.  Google any science topic, and you’ll get thousand or millions of hits on any idea in science or medicine. The information is derived from other websites, news reports, rumors, or, to be cynical, from outright fabrication. In the fields of science and medicine, critical thinking is absolutely necessary to understanding it. Because it’s hard work, pseudoscience and anti-science have become quite prevalent lately.   Continue reading “Checking for pseudoscience in real science news (updated)”

Where the Huffington Post ignores real science…again

This week, the Huffington Post, one of the 10 worst anti-science websites, continues to confirm our suspicions about the quality of their science journalism.  HuffPo supports the anti-vaccination lunacy, have editors who claim homeopathy works, and that a bug on the lens of a camera is an alien spacecraft.  It’s not clear why anyone with a stitch of science background would read that thing, but sometimes their junk science wanders over into bad journalism of the highest sort.  HuffPo is the FoxNews of the left wing, a poorly written and edited mouthpiece for the uncritical left.   Continue reading “Where the Huffington Post ignores real science…again”

Creationism legislation—Tennessee Monkey Bill (update 3)

There’s been a lot of press and internet complaints about the new Tennessee anti-evolution bill that recently passed the Tennessee Senate, and passed last year in the House.  Essentially the bill encourages teachers to present the “scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses” of “controversial” topics such as “biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.”  And I can’t say this enough, what scientific weaknesses?  The only debate that makes sense would one on the ethics of human cloning, but then again, it could be a code word for anything from stem-cell research to in vitro fertilization.

Continue reading “Creationism legislation—Tennessee Monkey Bill (update 3)”