Apparently the Tribeca Film Festival will feature a documentary on the disgraced anti-vaccine doctor Andrew Wakefield. Unfortunately, the film is probably not discussing the history and facts on the vaccines & autism controversy. Instead, it’s likely a positive portrayal of Wakefield and similar doctors. Wakefield’s original paper asserting that vaccines increase the risk of autism was retracted several years ago after it was found that there were various ethical and methodological errors (including outright fraud), yet much of the anti-vaccine movement still doesn’t seem to have realized it yet. His supporters seem to now just be crackpots ranting about how his groundbreaking research is just being suppressed by the establishment. (If you have ever seen physics crackpots, this kind of thinking is one of the telltale signs that they have no interest in actually learning anything and only want to pontificate about their pet “theories”). Even among people who stop talking about autism, there seems to be significant fear that the vaccines are overwhelming children’s immune systems ( 1) ludicrous & 2) there is actually less exposure with more modern vaccines than with fewer earlier vaccines), among other concerns
The film festival already responded saying that their film choices are supposed to foster “dialogue and discussion.” This makes sense when there is a valid controversy. There is no known link between vaccines and autism, so there is basically one side that is doing research and showing that there doesn’t seem to be any problem, and another one that just asserts that the data is wrong. Similarly to the evolution/creation controversy, there is no academic controversy here. Worse, even if the vaccine opponents are right, it is almost certain that giving vaccines still does far more good than harm.
A number of prominent doctors have written a note calling for Dr. Oz to lose his position at Columbia-Presbyterian due to his constant peddling of pseudoscience to unsuspecting people. Supposedly, Dr. Oz is an amazing surgeon but many feel that his support of “alternative” treatments makes a lot of people think that he does more harm than good.
The Atlantic has a long article out this month about Alcoholics Anonymous. The main conclusion: Alcoholics Anonymous is, for the most part, quack medicine with little scientific backing that is supported for historical/cultural reasons even though better treatments for addiction potentially exist.
It seems that everyone just assumes that 12 step programs work because of how widespread they are, but such programs (and apparently many other rehab programs) often have abysmal success rates. Furthermore, many of their methods are reportedly based on completely unsupported assertions rather than the kind of evidence that is usually required for most medical treatments. This is apparently a case where popular opinion has overruled any actual scientific evidence or consensus and the result is that many people are made to suffer unnecessarily. Treatment should generally rely on what has been shown to work and not what people believe should work due to some preexisting ideology.
It’s being reported that Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council, a governmental agency that appears to be their equivalent of the NIH in the US, has put out a new analysis of hundreds of papers dealing with homeopathy. They find no evidence that homeopathy is effective at treating anything.
Given that homeopathic medicines are at best placebos and at worst unregulated, poorly documented chemicals, no one should be surprised at this finding. Homeopathy is quack medicine with a transparently pseudoscientific basis.
io9 has an article on some of the various logical fallacies that you might encounter when running into people supporting pseudoscience or ant-scientific beliefs. If you’ve ever dealt with crackpots (most people who have gotten through grad school in physics probably have), you’ll almost certainly recognize at least some of these.
One notable absence is one of the most common fallacies used by crackpots: the argument from persecution (I don’t know if this has a more common name, but it probably does). This is basically the reverse of the appeal to authority: My idea is so revolutionary it will change how we think about topic X. The authorities on topic X vehemently disagree with me. Therefore, I must be correct and they are suppressing the truth. I suppose this is more or less a paranoid version of begging the question.
If you look at the abstracts from the crackpot sessions at APS meetings (yes, these really exist – I think APS has decided that it’s less of a hassle to let crackpots talk to an audience of crackpots than to try to prevent them from presenting anything), most of them follow some form of that logic. It’s also the basis of one of the more annoying classes of web ads (“Doctors HATE him …”).
Not all of the fallacies in the list are only used by crackpots and people arguing in bad faith. Some of them are common fallacies accidentally used by nearly everyone at some point. Observation selection is probably the most common and the most difficult to avoid. Just because you aren’t peddling your own pet theory of relativity doesn’t mean that you never use logical fallacies in your arguments.
Over at Slate, Phil Plait has an article on promoting media figures that support science. In particular, he discusses his decision to retweet a picture highlighting some famous Hollywood actresses who have shown some interest or aptitude in science. The controversy here is over the question of who should be applauded or treated as a role model for their interest or work in science and related fields.
The picture in question highlights five actresses with a variety of connections to science, from inventing new technologies to writing children’s books about math and science. Plait notes that the most controversial choice in the picture is the inclusion of Mayim Bialik, who earned a PhD in neuroscience. It’s not her actual work in earning the PhD that is controversial (as far as I know – I’ve never even taken a neuroscience class), but rather it is her apparent connections to various fringe groups pushing alternative medicine and anti-vaccination beliefs. Plait decided that Bialik’s work using her celebrity status to popularize science is more important the negative effects of her support for pseudoscience.
I would actually take the opposite position on this. The purpose of the image seems to be to highlight some celebrities who can also be seen as role models for children (and girls in particular) who might be interested in science. It shows that even cool people like science. However, in the case of Mayim Bialik, her support for pseudoscience and bad medical practices has far outweighed her scientific achievements in the eyes of the public (she has a PhD but doesn’t appear to have done any research since graduating). It’s difficult to hold her up as a role model when she’s setting back public support of science in other fields. While the idea of the image discussed in the article is fine, I think it would have been much better to showcase five people who have done real work (beyond student research/work) in science or popularizing science and who aren’t associated with anti-scientific groups. It really shouldn’t be that difficult to find five such people, although if it is difficult to do so then that might be a more interesting topic to talk about.
A study published earlier this week on fact-checking medical claims made on TV has been popping up all over the internet for the past few days. The authors watched a number of episodes of two different medical talk shows, compiled a list of various recommendations and then tried to find evidence supporting these recommendations. This is a pretty qualitative way to study this, but sounds like a reasonable way to fact check these programs. A well-supported medical claim ought to be easy to find in the literature. Claims that can’t be found in a short search through the literature probably lack enough evidence to make a serious recommendation.
The article makes Dr. Oz’s show look particularly bad (and Dr. Oz’s credibility has already suffered a number of blows this year). Less than half of the 80 recommendations from his show included in the study were found to have any serious supporting evidence. Furthermore, it was rather shocking to see that Dr. Oz’s show mostly gives dietary advice (over 1/3 of recommendations) or recommends “alternative therapies.” This suggests that Dr. Oz is really just telling viewers what they want to hear and not what they need to hear. The other show, The Doctors, wasn’t great either but seemed to have a much more balanced mix of recommendations and also did a far better job at suggesting that people consult their actual doctors rather than just blindly following what they saw on TV.
Having prominent shows with millions of viewers peddling quack medicine is very bad for all science fields and not just medicine. Medicine is probably the closest most people get to actual science, so when unsupported recommendations don’t work they could lead to eroding the public’s trust in science. Furthermore, medical professionals have a duty not to mislead the public. This paper suggests that prominent public figures in medicine are failing at one of their most basic duties.
So former Red Sox pitcher/failed wannabe videogame mogul Curt Schilling has apparently been spewing a bunch of ignorant nonsense over Twitter in recent days, mostly involving attacking evolution. Schilling is currently one of ESPN’s many famous former players on the payroll to provide on air commentary once in a while. One of the networks actual commentators and journalists, Keith Law, responded with a series of tweets answering some of Schilling’s inane questions that supposedly should stump supporters of evolution. As a result, the Lawhas been ordered off Twitter for a few days. ESPN has been quite evasive over the official reason for this (they say that it’s not about his opinions), but the timing suggests that the suspension is for embarrassing Schilling in public. Unlike Schilling, Law is employed to provide actual content, so we would hope that the network would give him the benefit of the doubt over this. He kept his tweets much more factual and respectful than Schilling’s.
Science reports that a creationist group will hold a workshop tomorrow at Michigan State. Among the various topics of discussion are why evolution is false, why the Big Bang is false, and how evolution leads to Hitler. There are even talks attacking the work of several professors. The conference is also advertising debates between MSU professors and their speakers, even though those professors apparently have no intention of showing up. The conference is sponsored through a student group, although one of the professors notes that the planning seems to all come from an outside group. The dishonest advertising using professors’ names to attract attendees ought to lead to some sort of sanctions against the group. Regardless of actual student involvement, their sponsorship of the event means that the school should be able to hold them accountable for the advertising.
Needless to say, this is quite embarrassing for the Michigan State science community. The setting and student sponsorship are an obvious attempt to lend the creationist group the appearance of legitimacy, using the name of a research university to attack that university’s mission. The school has stated that it won’t try to do anything to shut down the workshop, although the apparent lack of student control might give them a justification for doing so. There are a few courses of action that people can take. They can pack the room with a hostile crowd and then walk out in the middle, leaving an empty room, or stay and grill them with difficult questions. At this point, the beliefs of most prominent creationists are impervious to logic or evidence, so the latter probably won’t work. Another option is to do what the APS does with crackpots: let them give their talks but ignore them so that only a handful of diehard supporters even show up.
The Atlantic has a new article on how people get drawn into the anti-vaccine movement. Ultimately, the reason why many parents end up opposing vaccinating their own children seems to be that people are terrible at judging risk in a rational manner. The parents end up weighing the generally rare threat of dangerous disease against the even more rare but also more immediate threat of vaccine complications and decide that the minuscule threat from the vaccine is more dangerous. A more rational result would be that while the threat of disease is low, it is generally higher than any threats from the vaccine. Additionally, the only reason why the threat of disease is low is that nearly everyone is vaccinated, preventing many dangerous illnesses from spreading throughout the population. While one child not getting vaccinated does not change this, too many children going unvaccinated could allow for diseases such as measles and whooping cough to return. This has already been happening in a number of places. With the vaccination program, society has decided to accept a very small number of serious complications in order to prevent a much worse outcome from allowing these diseases to spread.
The article highlights the fact that many people place more weight on personal anecdotes than actual evidence (i.e. blinded studies using statistical analysis). In the words of one parent “data could be flawed … but someone’s story … I trust that more.” Obviously, data could be flawed, but scientific studies have at least attempted to remove biases and will almost always be better than talking to some non-random sample of people (by construction a flawed dataset). There’s even a doctor who uncritically accepts his patients’ beliefs about what caused their children’s medical problems as evidence that vaccines are dangerous. Doctors are supposed to listen to their patients, but also need to correct patients when they make unfounded claims. Just because someone says a vaccine hurt their child doesn’t make it true. It doesn’t make it untrue either, but the number of people claiming to have encountered vaccine complications is vastly higher than what would be expected from the scientific literature.
The article does a decent job of juxtaposing the arguments of the people opposing vaccines against some of the reasons why their views are (if we take the most charitable explanation of their views) misinformed. Too often the media prefers to frame every controversy as a debate between two equal sides when in many cases there is only one side with any significant supporting evidence.