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Jan 05 2013

Priming the pump

We will have a Google+ podcast this evening, at 6pm Central time — I’ll start sending out invitations around 5:30. You do not need an invitation to watch it live, or to leave comments during.

The general topic is bad science and quackery. To get us started, here are a couple of links to some examples beyond the usual homeopathy/magic healing stuff that is so blatant — it’s subtler stuff that we often ignore.

  • Money interests promote bad science. Look at energy drinks: lies and hype.

    Promoting a message beyond caffeine has enabled the beverage makers to charge premium prices. A 16-ounce energy drink that sells for $2.99 a can contains about the same amount of caffeine as a tablet of NoDoz that costs 30 cents. Even Starbucks coffee is cheap by comparison; a 12-ounce cup that costs $1.85 has even more caffeine.

  • The science media flops big-time and promotes bad science. One example: Sharon Begley oversells placebos.

    But while anecdotes are not science, it is stories of the placebo response that drive home its awesome power—much more so than reports in dry research papers.

    Jebus Christ. Enough said, maybe.

  • There are legitimate concerns to discuss about GMO foods, but usually we hear little but knee-jerk ideological rejection at the idea of tainting our precious food (this in a country where it’s almost impossible to buy food that isn’t genetically tweaked and processed). A critic rethinks his position on GMO foods.

    I want to start with some apologies. For the record, here and upfront, I apologise for having spent several years ripping up GM crops. I am also sorry that I helped to start the anti-GM movement back in the mid 1990s, and that I thereby assisted in demonising an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment.

  • Bad science prospers when their topic is hidden behind shame and silence. Case in point: the abortion issue, which only has two voices, the strident shrieking about ‘baby-killers’ and muted, almost embarrassed silence.

    When abortion providers do not disclose their work in everyday encounters, their silence perpetuates a stereotype that abortion work is unusual or deviant, or that legitimate, mainstream doctors do not perform abortions. This contributes to marginalization of abortion providers within medicine and the ongoing targeting of providers for harassment and violence. This reinforces the reluctance to disclose abortion work, and the cycle continues.

This is not an exclusive list, but merely something that will get us started. And of course, people can warm up to it by discussing it here in the comments.

40 comments

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  1. 1
    Rev. BigDumbChimp

    Oh I bet the GMO discussion gets heated

  2. 2
    Maureen Brian

    PZ, I hope you and your nose are much better.

    What you say about silence and stigmatisation of abortion is not universally true. This campaign by bpas in response to picketing and harassment, funded by donations specifically given to “fight back” has been a great success and well received – http://www.bpas.org/nomorenames/ – facebook page shows the huge billboards at major railway stations – http://www.facebook.com/pages/bpas-No-More-Names/267008550087332?fref=ts

    A small plug for standing up for oneself would not go amiss.

  3. 3
    briane

    Um, the crap against climate scientists by joe the weather-guy:
    Exibit a: It was cold today, and the last few days I remember, therefore global warming is wrong.
    Exibit b: Someone, who so-called critics can’t recall, said it would uniformly warm across the globe, but last year was only the 2nd hotest year, and it was bloody cold in RusiyoergoKurzTurkistanstralia, ergo, nyah, nhay climate science.
    Exibit c: Apparently it was warm enough to grow vines in some northern locale (not globally, if true), some centuries ago. Ergo, some centuries ago the whole globe was warmer than now, ergo world colder not warmer.
    Exibit d: Emails of scientists collaborating, arguing, using well known jargon and techniques of the field were hacked and distributed by people just before a climate conference for max. negativity. Thus, igorami can claim by their lack of understanding of what the scientists were talking about in their (the scientists jargon) emails that there was a coverup that would sunder science with such dishonesty…
    And so on…
    Sorry, I’m a bit drunk right now. Have a nice night.

  4. 4
    consciousness razor

    Promoting a message beyond caffeine has enabled the beverage makers to charge premium prices. A 16-ounce energy drink that sells for $2.99 a can contains about the same amount of caffeine as a tablet of NoDoz that costs 30 cents. Even Starbucks coffee is cheap by comparison; a 12-ounce cup that costs $1.85 has even more caffeine.

    Sure, but you pay for what you get. None of the other options have such a carefully-balanced flavor of antifreeze and llama urine, not to mention the secret ingredients which boost your charisma and saving throws vs. volcanoes. Plus, it mixes with booze.

  5. 5
    Kagehi

    With respect to energy drinks… Most of them also contain Niacin, and a few have other things, which have some minor effects too. But, mostly its the caffeine ,and niacin. Despite suggestions otherwise, I haven’t found drinking, say, a coke, which only has the caffeine, near as effective. Though, I tend to drink – either the Agave or Berry Full Throttle, if I can get them, or a couple of the flavors of Amp, or maybe Redbull. The fact that most grocery stores fail to carry any flavor of Full Throttle, other than Citrus, which is vile, and many of the others are just as vile, has led me to the conclusion that there must also be some mystery ingredient, which, when consumed more often than I do any of them, makes you lose your sense of taste. This effect isn’t, oddly, one of their advertised results. lol

  6. 6
    Rev. BigDumbChimp

    Mmmmmmmmm llama urine

  7. 7
    reynoldhall

    Well, speaking of the topic…anyone see the “Benefits of Alkaline Water” banner at the top?

  8. 8
    a_ray_in_dilbert_space

    PZ,
    You might want to peruse the latest brainfart from serial committer of cerebral flatulence, Dan Sarewitz. Why does Nature give a platform to this idiot?

  9. 9
    Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls

    You might want to peruse the latest brainfart from serial committer of cerebral flatulence, Dan Sarewitz.

    *Dons welder’s mask to read comment*

  10. 10
    dobby

    Don’t forget people and groups that attack all science because they don’t like the results in some areas. Places like the Junk Science Home Page.

  11. 11
    WhiteHatLurker

    First post under the new look, I guess – what’s with the pop-ups?

    Looking at it another way, placebos have been used to treat ever ailment known, with efficacy that rivals many over the counter treatments. I’ve always thought that placebo is the true wonder drug of the 20th century.

    Seriously, I have ethical problems with the use of placebos as the control for clinical trials when there are proven treatments. The control group should receive the proven treatment, rather than leaving it up to the body to do the best it can against whatever the problem is.

  12. 12
    gillt

    Speaking of subtle, it might be interesting to talk about the legitimacy of DOs (doctor of osteopathy). I know there are residency programs that refuse to accept and that many MDs consider their holistic approach to patient treatment borderline woo.

  13. 13
    k_machine

    Exibit c: Apparently it was warm enough to grow vines in some northern locale (not globally, if true), some centuries ago. Ergo, some centuries ago the whole globe was warmer than now, ergo world colder not warmer.

    I heard this one before – the argument is that it was so warm during the Middle Ages that there were vineyards in England. The main problem is that there are vineyards in England today, when it’s supposed to be to cold to grow grapes. So climate hasn’t changed as much as supposed in this argument. This is from memory so it might be a little shaky.

  14. 14
    jefrir

    Seriously, I have ethical problems with the use of placebos as the control for clinical trials when there are proven treatments. The control group should receive the proven treatment, rather than leaving it up to the body to do the best it can against whatever the problem is.

    I’m pretty sure this is already standard procedure in medical trials.

  15. 15
    Louis

    Jefrir, #14,

    It is.

    Placebo controlled trials are usually done for genuinely novel indications where the ethics permits. (Unless things are being done on the sly….do we have to get into that? ;-) )

    Louis

  16. 16
    microraptor

    I heard this one before – the argument is that it was so warm during the Middle Ages that there were vineyards in England. The main problem is that there are vineyards in England today, when it’s supposed to be to cold to grow grapes. So climate hasn’t changed as much as supposed in this argument. This is from memory so it might be a little shaky.

    Also, the evidence suggests that the so called Middle Ages warm period was an event that was localized to Europe and parts of Asia rather than the worldwide event that the climate deniers claim.

  17. 17
    Jafafa Hots

    The problem with GMOs is not that they’re GMOs.
    The problem is “intellectual property law” and the profit motive.

    It’s hard to solve world hunger by eliminating people’s ability to save and share seeds.
    It’s hard to make a profit on a product that cost millions to develop by making it accessible to hundreds of millions of people who can’t pay for it. (which is why nobody is trying to do that).

    GMOs won’t feed the poor. They’ll just feed the wealthy, who will pay three times as much for a blueberry that has more antioxidants in it.

  18. 18
    a_ray_in_dilbert_space

    Jafafa hots,
    I think that what we see from Monsanto isn’t “profit motive”, but rather a greed motive. I have no problem with companies making a profit. I do have a problem with companies screwing the poor so they can sleep on beds stuffed with $100 bills.

  19. 19
    Lou Doench

    If there were any other playoff game I would be all over this. One of my NYR’s is to get at least marginally more involved. But the Bengals don’t get into the playoffs that often. Priorities… I know. But I bleed orange and black and if I haven’t stopped by now I may be incurable.

  20. 20
    crowepps

    My experience in talking about abortion is that when a person accurately explains that they had an abortion because, for instance, their fetus had no heartbeat, or because they were hemorrhaging in the process of miscarrying, or their pregnancy was discovered to be ectopic and life-threatening, the response is “Well, nobody thinks of *that* as an abortion!” The thing they refuse to accept is that ‘abortion’ is a medical PROCEDURE, and the name attaches to the *actions* involved.

    It is ‘abortion’ when the fetus is dead, it is ‘abortion’ when the pregnancy is doomed, and it’s ‘abortion’ when the life of the woman is at risk, because the name of the procedure doesn’t change according to the motives or presumed moral status of the patient. Relabeling it ‘termination’ in those circumstances when everyone would agree ending the pregnancy is absolutely necessary or just plain sensible allows people to avoid the realities.

  21. 21
    johnmarley

    I had to share the video of Mark Lynas on Facebook. I have a lot of anti-GMO relatives who really need to hear it. I hope they listen.

  22. 22
    johnmarley

    It’s hard to solve world hunger by eliminating people’s ability to save and share seeds.
    It’s hard to make a profit on a product that cost millions to develop by making it accessible to hundreds of millions of people who can’t pay for it. (which is why nobody is trying to do that).

    GMOs won’t feed the poor. They’ll just feed the wealthy, who will pay three times as much for a blueberry that has more antioxidants in it.

    Did you watch that video? He addressed at least part of that:

    I’d assumed that GM benefited only the big companies. It turned out that billions of dollars of benefits were accruing to farmers needing fewer inputs.

    I’d assumed that Terminator Technology was robbing farmers of the right to save seed. It turned out that hybrids did that long ago, and that Terminator never happened.

    I’d assumed that no-one wanted GM. Actually what happened was that Bt cotton was pirated into India and roundup ready soya into Brazil because farmers were so eager to use them.

    [snip]

    Biotechnology has not been stopped, but it has been made prohibitively expensive to all but the very biggest corporations.

    It now costs tens of millions to get a crop through the regulatory systems in different countries. In fact the latest figures I’ve just seen from CropLife suggest it costs $139 million to move from discovering a new crop trait to full commercialisation, so open-source or public sector biotech really does not stand a chance.

    There is a depressing irony here that the anti-biotech campaigners complain about GM crops only being marketed by big corporations when this is a situation they have done more than anyone to help bring about.

  23. 23
    mikeyb

    As we all know, bad science thrives because we live in a largely scientifically illiterate culture, despite the fact that our society is increasingly dependent on science/technology. Bad science can only be eradicated by good science, which starts with understanding what science is, its strengths and limitations. “Science” has become a kind of magic word used primarily to sell stuff, whether it be legitimate FDA approved drugs – my product has more science peer journal approved studies than yours does, no matter what the hell it actually does, or crudely as in all the health supplements pawned under the supposed benefits proven by “science.” Unfortunately with an illiterate culture and complicit media, itself largely illiterate, good science cannot really be acted upon until a majority of the public buys into it, and even then only maybe. Take global warming. Despite the fact that we’ve known about the problem for decades, public opinion on the reality of global warming has waxed and waned, and little to nothing serious has yet to be done about it. I’ve even had arguments with PhD scientists and engineers who deny that climate change is occuring. We did once act on other potential catastrophies like CFCs in the past, I’m not sure we’re capable anymore to collectively deal with these kinds of issues. Unfortunately to act on issues based upon good science requires an educated population, which is a slow and arduous process which in turn depends upon public support. And global warming is only one of a multiple of environmental issues we’re going to have to come to terms with – deforestation, water use issues, overpopulation, species destruction etc etc. I’m not a doomsayer, but not exactly an optimist about these things either. Nature will take it’s course, one way or another whether or not we figure it out.

  24. 24
    Minestuck

    The GMO topic hits really close to home. I’m a botany major and my mom is into the extreme anti-GMO, pro-organic rhetoric and she often accuses me of being in the pockets of “Big Agra” and Monsanto and tells me that I’m just brainwashed by bought and sold scientists because I support GMO research. It’s a really shitty feeling knowing your mom thinks you’re a plague on the world wreaking death and disease through biotechnology.

  25. 25
    brucegee1962

    Scientists always get all queasy when alt med practitioners talk about “the mind healing the body” or “the power of positive thinking” or the value of visualizing wellness — it all sounds like such twaddle.

    Except that all of those terms are basically describing the placebo effect, which is well documented to work. When scientists dismissively say something is “no better than a placebo,” do they really think about how amazing it is that pretty much doing anything, from prescribing sugar pills to waving magic smoke in the air, will make people better in an appreciable number of cases?

    From what I’ve heard, there aren’t very many studies looking at the effect itself. Do some placebos work better than others? Does the presentation of a placebo — the practitioner’s mannerisms, air of confidence — matter? If so, does it make a difference if real treatments are prescribed, but the doctors who present the treatments do so with different mannerisms?

    Those are some questions that I’d be asking if I was a physician. But hey, I’m just a liberal arts person, so what do I know about how people feel?

  26. 26
    johnmarley

    … will make people feel better in an appreciable number of cases

    FTFY

    When alties crow about “the mind healing the body” or “the power of positive thinking” or the value of visualizing wellness, they do not mean transient relief. They mean actual cures. That is not the placebo effect.

    … which is well documented to work for transient relief

    FTFY

    Yes, SBM understands the placebo effect. That is why there are discussions about the ethics of prescribing placebos. “[N]o better than a placebo,” means “It will not cure any condition”.

  27. 27
    Anthony K

    As a liberal arts person, did you try asking Wikipedia those kinds of questions? The article on placebo has a list of references to research by scientists and physicians asking those very questions, and the article itself has some of those very answers.

    There’s an article in Skeptic that discusses the hierarchy of effectiveness of placebos.

    Seems the person here queasy about investigating the placebo effect is you.

  28. 28
    w00dview

    Holy shit I read that Dan Sarewitz article. Has he not paid attention to US politics in the last decade or so? Scientists are seen as being democratically aligned because the democrats at least have some foot hold in reality. The GOP on the other hand are too busy whining about your TAX DOLLARS ZOMG! going into fruit fly research, insist on teaching fairy tales in class, talk about magic ovaries that kill rapist sperm (if it is legitimate rape, of course) and say that global warming ain’t no big deal because God says it totes OK to fuck up the planet. I don’t even live in the US and I can see that the modern GOP is less a political party and more a freakish Ayn Rand worshipping death cult. And yet Sarewitz say it is scientists that need to compromise? Yeah, that has worked real well for Obama, hasn’t it?

  29. 29
    roland

    Science has become so specialized and pressure to publish has become so high that even good science can promote quackery. Experiments are specifically designed to bring out on the tiniest effect (whatever the scientist wants to prove) and the result is in turn over-interpreted by the scientists themselves. They have to, otherwise their work is done for nothing and they won’t get grants. On top of that, the two big journals only publish ‘sexy’ sounding studies, even if the science is crap. The popular press loves it, and thousands of people use it to peddle bullshit products to gullible customers.

  30. 30
    jefrir

    Do some placebos work better than others?

    Yes. More expensive ones work better, and the colour and form (eg. tablets v. injection) also have an effect. They are still not actually medicine, however, and it is unethical to pretend they are.

    The shop over the road is selling a new (to me) scammy supplement – Dextrose powder! For a boost of energy! Yeah, they’re basically selling sugar. As a health food, alongside the vitamins and stuff.

  31. 31
    Rev. BigDumbChimp

    Science has become so specialized and pressure to publish has become so high that even good science can promote quackery. Experiments are specifically designed to bring out on the tiniest effect (whatever the scientist wants to prove) and the result is in turn over-interpreted by the scientists themselves. They have to, otherwise their work is done for nothing and they won’t get grants. On top of that, the two big journals only publish ‘sexy’ sounding studies, even if the science is crap. The popular press loves it, and thousands of people use it to peddle bullshit products to gullible customers.

    All science is like this now huh?

  32. 32
    johnmarley

    … even good science can promote quackery.

    Why do you then go on to give examples of poor science practices? Show us some good science practices that promote quackery. Also, there have been many posts on this blog lamenting the poor state of both prestigious journals and popular science reporting, so your complaint is not news to anyone.

  33. 33
    michaeld

    Hmm about the only way I can think of good science promoting quackery is that most statistics use a 95% probability test. So even with a good study 5% of the time the results can be wrong. This would be weeded out by further studies though.

  34. 34
    Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls

    which is well documented to work.

    Mostly in pain studies. Not so much at anything else long term.

  35. 35
    brucegee1962

    I didn’t mean to suggest that alt-med or placebos should in any way replace evidence-based medicine — sorry if I sounded that way. I meant that if we understood the mechanisms that cause placebos work, we might use those mechanisms to enhance the effectiveness of actual medicine.

    Thanks for the link, Anthony — it was interesting. It doesn’t contradict my main point that we still have a lot to learn about this phenomenon.

  36. 36
    johnmarley

    I meant that if we understood the mechanisms that cause placebos work, we might use those mechanisms to enhance the effectiveness of actual medicine.

    That is pretty well understood. It’s also called “bedside manner”. It is well known that patients report feeling better when they get personal care and empathy from their physician. A big part of that is just the attention. I seem to recall Orac posting about this some time ago, but I can’t find it.

  37. 37
    johnmarley

    link? URL? hashtag? Invitation? Please?

  38. 38
    johnmarley

    nevermind, I found it.

  39. 39
    johnmarley

    The cat licking itself behind Esteleth is a little distracting.

  40. 40
    David Marjanović

    I heard this one before – the argument is that it was so warm during the Middle Ages that there were vineyards in England. The main problem is that there are vineyards in England today, when it’s supposed to be to cold to grow grapes. So climate hasn’t changed as much as supposed in this argument. This is from memory so it might be a little shaky.

    Oh, the vineyards were gone in the meantime, because it was indeed too cold. But nowadays, a lot more wine is produced in England than ever before, and apparently it actually is wine as opposed to vinegar.

    As mentioned above, the Medieval Warm Period happened at different times in different places and didn’t happen at all in yet others.

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