Editor’s note: This article combines elements of several articles about pseudoscience published in 2012 and 2013. It’s been revised to include some newer information and split into several parts to improve readability. See Part 1 here.
This is part 2 of the Pseudoscience and science series.
Pseudoscience and science – the former is bullshit. And the latter is fact based on robust, unbiased evidence. Mostly pseudoscience can be ignored, even if it smells bad.
Pseudoscience is enticing because it’s easy to understand. It’s not nuanced, and it general speaks in black and white terms, often false dichotomies. That view is most prevalent in medicine.
Real doctors will say “this treatment for XYZ cancer is going to be difficult. You’ll lose your hair. You’ll feel sick all the time. You might be in pain. But it gives a 73% chance of putting the cancer into remission, and you have a reasonable chance of living at least five years.”
The pseudo-medicine pusher will say, “drink this juice and have a coffee enema. No side effects. And I guarantee that the cancer will disappear.”
The second choice is so enticing. So easy. But most of us know that treating most cancers is hard. We try to find another way, and hope for the best. Maybe you can choose the junk medicine approach, and get lucky with a spontaneous remission. Or maybe the real medicine worked well enough to cause the remission.
Of course, pseudoscience can make broad claims without the rigorous research required to make those claims. The charlatans who push junk medicine get to say whatever they want, with no consequences usually.
Alternative medicine is bullshit – it is firmly grounded in pseudoscience.
Let’s start with a quote (edited for clarity and because some points aren’t germane to this article) from the just-retired Jon Stewart, in his final rant ever on the Daily Show:
[infobox icon=”quote-left”]Bullshit Is everywhere. There is very little that you will encounter in life that has not been, in some ways, infused with bullshit.
Not all of it bad. Your general, day-to-day, organic free-range bullshit is often necessary. That kind of bullshit in many ways provides important social-contract fertilizer. It keeps people from making people each other cry all day.
But then there’s the more pernicious bullshit–your premeditated, institutional bullshit, designed to obscure and distract. Designed by whom? The bashitocracy.
It comes in three basic flavors. One, making bad things sound like good things. “Organic, all-natural.” Because factory-made sugar oatmeal balls doesn’t sell. Patriot Act, because the “are you scared enough to let me look at all your phone records” Act doesn’t sell. So whenever something’s been titled Freedom Family Fairness Health America, take a good long sniff. Chances are it’s been manufactured in a facility that may contain traces of bullshit
Number two. Hiding the bad things under mountains of bullshit Complexity. You know, I would love to download Drizzy’s latest Meek Mill diss. But I’m not really interested right now in reading Tolstoy’s iTunes agreement. So I’ll just click agree, even if it grants Apple prima note with my spouse.
And finally, finally, it’s the bullshit of infinite possibility. These bullshitters cover their unwillingness to act under the guise of unending inquiry. We can’t do anything because we don’t yet Imow everything. We cannot take action on climate change, until everyone in the world agrees gay-marriage vaccines won’t cause our children to marry goats, who are going to come for our guns. Until then, I say it leads to controversy.
Now, the good news is this. Bullshitters have gotten pretty lazy. And their work is easily detected. And looking for it is kind of a pleasant way to pass the time.
The best defense against bullshit is vigilance. So if you smell something, say something. [/infobox]
The original infographic had a glaring error that I missed. It also had a potentially confusing bit of information. Although someone with a critical mind would quickly figure it out, I don’t think I should be pushing out an infographic that has glaring inaccuracies. I’ve contacted the author to correct, and if they respond with a better one, I’ll repost.
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.
I frequently employ the term Logical Fallacy to demonstrate a logical or rational failure of a particular argument, especially those who adhere to anti-science or even pseudoscience points of view, like antivaccinationists. Logical fallacies are used to win arguments, despite the merits of said argument. It’s also used to divert the reader (or listener) to a totally irrelevant point, but has the illusion of being logical.
There are several definitions of what constitutes a logical fallacy:
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
An argument that sometimes fools human reasoning, but is not logically valid.–Fallacious Argument
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
Generally, in discussions or debates, those who lack scientific evidence (which is based on the logical scientific method), have only one choice–resort to one of many logical fallacies. Over time, distinct types of logical fallacies that help define a failure of a pseudoscientific argument. Let’s look at one that is popular with the antivaccination crowd. Continue reading “Vaccine deniers use logical fallacies to prove superiority”
Pseudoscience is enticing partially because it’s easy and partially because it gives black and white false dichotomies about the natural world, including medicine. Pseudoscience tries to make 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. It really has an appeal to it because it digest complex analysis to a simple “yes, this works.”
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.
So, I decided to highlight what separates real science from pseudoscience. We’ll explore what exactly makes an idea scientific (and spoiler alert, it isn’t magic), and contrary to real science, what makes an idea “pseudoscientific.” So sit down, grab your favorite reading beverage, because this isn’t going to be a quick internet meme. I intend to show you the lies of pseudoscience, and how it’s used with creationism, vaccine denialism, alternative medicine, or whatever you want to debunk. Continue reading “How pseudoscience tries to fool you”
Over 5.2 billion people died in the 20th Century. Although the 20th Century ended a mere 13 years ago, from a statistics standpoint, we know we will probably die of different diseases (and other less natural causes) than our forebears. The causes of death evolve over time as medicine improves, science ameliorates risk, lifestyles change, environments shift, and politics reshape our world. British data journalist David McCandless (of Information is Beautiful) created this fascinating infographic based on a project, commissioned by the Wellcome Trust, a U.K. charity devoted to human health, called Death in the 20th Century, which shows us, graphically, the leading causes of mortality from 1900 to 2000, worldwide.
Some of the numbers are shocking. Humanity is the cause of nearly 1 billion (or just short of 20%) of the deaths in the 20th Century. These numbers include war, murders, religious intolerance, suicide, and other deadly crimes that humans perpetrate against one another. Maybe the 21st Century will knock that number down, though I doubt any of us are optimistic given the way this century has started.
But the most interest information is in the Infectious Disease section. Nearly 1.7 billion people have died from infectious diseases. Some of the more interesting numbers are:
In the 21st Century, the numbers of deaths from these diseases will probably be in the few thousand worldwide. Why? Because of vaccines. Not better sanitation. Not better health care facilities. But because of vaccines.
And in the 21st Century, as more vaccines are developed and brought to market, many of these infectious diseases will be less of a problem.
Vaccines saves lives. Literally hundreds of millions of lives.
If there was any doubt about the success of vaccines this graphic shows it clearly. We can eliminate confounding variables such as improved sanitation, since many of these diseases (if not most) are not dependent upon the quality of sanitation, and are merely transmitted from individual to individual. We can eliminate the improvement in health care (other than the obvious one of the accessibility of vaccines) because improved health care wouldn’t prevent most of these diseases.
Sometimes I run across articles and posts just because someone I follow on Twitter or Facebook will post a link that I happen to catch. Of course, I miss about 95% of what’s posted because I just don’t have the time to read them all. One person’s postings gets checked more frequently, since she focuses on vaccines, autism, and health care myths of all sorts. I ran across her while reading comments that followed an article in the LA Times (the story has long been deleted from my overloaded memory cells). She was responding to someone who maintained parents of autistic children were cheating the government out of disability payments. Let’s just say she was much nicer than I was.