Bad Science: Say That Twice, With A Straight Face

Some bad science writers just make it too easy.

The other day, I come across an article that someone posted on Facebook. It was entitled Science Finally Confirms That People Absorb Energy From Others!

Of course you do not have to be a scientist to know that is complete bullshit. Oh dear, I thought, this is one of those rabbit holes that I cannot resist falling into. What new study has been twisted and perverted to fit this narrative today, I wonder? Will they name the scientist that “made the discovery”? Will they just give the name of an institute, and I’ll have to comb through their publications to find the culprit? Or perhaps is the aforementioned “science” performed by just some quack in a yurt in Arizona somewhere?

Where is this article going to fall on my 1-10 Bad Science Bullshit-o-Meter? So, I clicked on it. Of course I did.

If you don’t want to click on it I get it, so let me just quote the first two lines, because that’s the absolute best part.

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Kids Who Die For Ignorance

There has been another deadly outbreak of a preventable disease in Europe. This time, it is the measles which is spreading rapidly across Romania, and so far, 17 children have died.

Romania has seen nearly 2,000 cases of measles since February 2016, World Health Organization data shows.

The country’s vaccination rate is 86 per cent, well below the 95 per cent recommended for “herd immunity” against infectious disease.

Romania’s measles outbreak has killed 17 children there, none of whom were vaccinated.

Romania’s vaccination rate has fallen sharply over the last decade, driven in part by a vocal anti-vaccination movement there. The country now has Europe’s highest measles infection rate, and its fifth-lowest vaccination rate.

These stories are becoming more and more frequent, and I cannot stand it when another one comes out. When people spew this anti-vaccination nonsense on social media, I can’t let it go. I will engage that person and explain why they are wrong, and how their beliefs are destroying lives. It is not the same as when someone posts a quote from Mother Teresa, or a belief that nature is sacred and spiritual or what have you. Those are personal, relatively benign opinions. The anti-vaxx movement, on the other hand, is one of the most dangerous campaigns of misinformation in existence.

If you’re not yet convinced, the article goes on to explain how Europe’s protection against preventable disease is falling rapidly.

Of 32 European countries that have had measles cases since February 2016, 22 had measles vaccination rates below 95 per cent.

In January, 84 per cent of Europe’s measles cases happened in seven countries, all of which had vaccination rates under 95 per cent.

About 10 per cent of children with measles get ear infections, which can lead to hearing loss, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control warns. About five per cent will get pneumonia, and one in 1,000 will die.

When I talk about these stories, I usually get two main questions.

  1. Why do you bother engaging with anti-vaxx people? Don’t you know that you will never convince them?
  2. Why do you keep bringing these stories up? Aren’t you preaching to the choir? We all agree here that vaccinations are important.

So, let me answer those questions.

  1. I engage with people who post anti-vaxx beliefs on social media because allowing this misinformation to go unchallenged is precisely what has gotten us into this mess. While I understand that someone firm in their beliefs is very unlikely to change their mind, perhaps people who are on the fence and see the post will be less persuaded to become an anti-vaxxer if they see a reasonable exchange, rather than a one-sided pile of bad science and lies. Also, even if it is extremely hard to change someone’s firm belief, they are endangering innocent children with their ignorance, and so I have to at least try.
  2. I bring these stories up for one simple reason. A study was conducted on people who were “skeptical” of vaccine safety. This study, and many others, found that reiterating the science behind why anti-vaxx is bullshit did nothing to change their beliefs, if anything it made things worse. The only thing that made the slightest impact was to show them how bad these diseases can be. In other words, reminding people of the real risks of not vaccinating their children is the only thing that has a hope of bringing those numbers of vaccinations back up.

So, please, share this story. You don’t need to share this post, but share that article, and every other article that you come across which talks about the children that are getting sick and dying because of this nonsense. Maybe, just maybe, you know a new parent who is being swayed by the anti-vaxx argument, and that parent might see those images of those sick kids and think better of it.

It is important to remember that not everyone is iron clad in their convictions, nor is anyone born convinced of anything. You can persuade people if you share information before they become absolutely convinced of falsehoods. You could save a life.

 

 

 

Flat is the New Black

You may recall the excellent face-off between rapper B.o.B. and Neil DeGrasse Tyson over B.o.B’s insistence that the Earth is flat. It was fun, partially because it was hilarious that we are still having this conversation, and partly because it caused Neil DeGrasse Tyson to make this video

I did not react to the feud in the same way that I did when Creationists get into it with popular scientists, mostly because flat-Earthers are extremely rare and do not try to teach their “alternative theory” in public schools. They are so rare, in fact, that I was partly convinced that B.o.B. had simply picked the most ridiculous thing he could think of and said it on Twitter in order to get his name on TV for a few days, rather than because he actually believed it.

Even if he did believe it, I thought, I’m not going to lose my shit because one rapper slept his way through elementary school science and now thinks he’s being clever. I can just enjoy these short clips, and move on with my life.

Unfortunately, B.o.B. seems to have sparked something of a fashion. Not amongst other rappers, but rather amongst American athletes. It seems that being a flat-Earther has become very in.

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Bad Science: Now That’s a Double Whammy!

Recently, I came across a story that might have just hit the bad science motherload. It refers to an Italian pharmacy, which is authorized by the Italian government to sell products online. One of these products is called Dr. Reckeweg R20, and its product description just about blew my mind. As the article is in Italian, I’ll translate it for you here.

For starters, it is a homeopathic remedy, claiming to contain a product called “Ovaria”. According to the website, this product is made from the extract of ovaries, and is used in the treatment of:

irregolarità mestruali, disturbi del climaterio, deficit di memoria, depressione, disturbi funzionali delle ghiandole, complesso di inferiorità, criptorchidismo, enuresi notturna, impotenza, frigidità femminile, tendenze lesbiche, oligo e azzoospermia, congestioni”

Translation: irregular menstrual cycle, hot flashes, memory deficits, depression, disrupted glandular function, inferiority complex, cryptochidism [a.k.a. the absence of one or both testes from the scrotum], involuntary urination, impotence, female frigidity, lesbian tendencies, oligo- and azoo-spermia, congestion”.

Ooh where to begin.

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You’re Going To Make Me Rant About Privilege Again

Arguments from a privileged perspective are, unfortunately, an easy trap to fall into, and both sides of the political spectrum are afflicted with them. Your far right will often make ludicrous arguments from a white, cis hetero male perspective, we have all heard them and torn them apart many times. However it is not fair to deny that we have our own privileged kooks on the left as well. Anti-vaxxers, for instance, are often far to the left, and I have previously posted about how GMO-hate can also fall into this category. Now, I’ve come across another argument-from-privilege meme that is making my blood boil.

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Go fuck yourself, spiritual man.

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First The Good News, Or The Bad News?

Ah Italy. Behind the times in so many ways. While you may be in the forefront when it comes to high-end fashion, the cultural fashions that sweep the privileged world are always late in arriving to your shores. You might think that, given the tardiness you would be more inclined to look them over and sort out the good ones from the bad, but sadly they all eventually seem to make it over.

In this case, I am referring to the anti-vaccination fad that has been spreading, and killing, ever since the notorious Andrew Wakefield paper linking autism to the MMR vaccine. While there were anti-vaxxers before then, that was when the idea really got put on (organic and gluten-free, I’m sure) steroids. That was 1998, but it has only been in the past few years that the movement really started to gain traction in Italy as well.

Italian culture is a very hypochondriac one, so the issue of people not getting their kids vaccinated was never really raised until now. Some vaccines are obligatory by law, others are “highly recommended” but can be obligatory in some schools, though no one really knew the difference or made a fuss about it. When my mother moved here she was not told which were absolutely obligatory and which she could get away with not giving me, she was simply told that kids in Italy had to get all their vaccinations and that’s that.

But as I said fads, even the dangerous ones, eventually make it over here as well. So, the bad news, or the good news first?

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Vegan Parenting and an Italian Controversy

I don’t think there is any way to post about this subject, and my thoughts on it, without getting into trouble in the comments. Oh well, here goes.

Recently, an member of the very conservative Forza Italia party proposed a law that would sentence parents to 1-2 years in jail for not providing a balanced diet to children under 16. As the article I found written in English phrases it:

Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party wants to see parents who feed children under 16 a vegan diet jailed for up to a year.

That sounds both hilarious, and a little extreme. So, I went in search of a more detailed article from Italian news outlets, and found a decent article on the subject in La Reppublica. I feel that a little clarification is needed before I comment on the topic.

First of all, the law does not specifically mention veganism. The wording of the proposal is as follows:

[la legge] rende penalmente perseguibile chi “impone o adotta nei confronti di un minore degli anni 16, sottoposto alla sua responsabilità genitoriale o a lui affidato per ragione di educazione, istruzione, cura, vigilanza o custodia, una dieta alimentare priva di elementi essenziali per la crescita sana ed equilibrata del minore stesso”

Translation: [the law would] render punishable by law those who “impose or adopt for a minor under 16, who is under their parental responsibility or to them entrusted for reasons of education, instruction, care, vigilance or custody, a diet lacking in essential nutrients for the healthy and balanced growth of that same minor”.

While the law itself does not refer to veganism in particular, but rather to any diet which would lead to malnourishment, it is clear that the politician in question has her sights set on veganism. When asked about it, she talks about “radicalized” parents who impose diets which are far too restrictive to the healthy growth and cognitive development of their children, and mentions the essential nutrients often lacking in a vegan diet as her prime example. While she has no objection to informed adults making their own decisions, she says, it is a different matter entirely when those decisions impact the health and safety of children.

This attitude also does not come out of the blue. Veganism is definitely on the rise in Italy, and with it there have been many children hospitalized for malnutrition. One pediatrician in Rome saw three babies hospitalized for severe B12 deficiency in the past year alone. A two year old in Belluno was hospitalized for severe malnutrition, including calcium and B12 deficiency. A three year old girl in Genova had to be resuscitated after she was hospitalized, once again, for a severe B12 deficiency. I personally know someone who’s child almost died from a B12 deficiency. Of course, veganism is not the only kind of diet that can lead to such a severe impact on the health of children, but it is certainly something that is causing a lot of talk in Italy, given that the vegan fad is such a new arrival to the country.

So, here’s what I think about it. I have a controversial statement to make on the topic. As hard as it may seem to accept, the fact of the matter is, veganism is not the ultimate healthy diet. I’ll say it again.

Veganism is not the healthiest diet for humans

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Quackery Is Everywhere

I’ve been going on a bit of a quack-binge in my posting recently, with a few more to come I think. Yesterday I talked about how, sometimes, you shut up rather than keep arguing for science-based medicine, particularly when faced with someone who is terminally ill.

But then I come across this article in the Guardian, and my blood starts to boil again. Quackery really does infect everyone, including the Olympics.

 

Why are so many Olympians – mostly members of Team USA – sporting big red circular marks on their bodies? The simple answer is that they are fans of “cupping” – an alternative health technique that involves pressing hot jars on to the body. This creates suction, which is claimed to increase blood flow to those areas. The swimmers and gymnasts who use it say it helps relieve soreness in their battered bodies.

It would certainly help relieve overburdened wallets, but there is no evidence it does anything else. Eating jam out of those jars would probably have a more significant physical impact, though it might not be the most nutritionally savvy strategy.

 

Oh for Heaven’s sake. This is really a testament to how pervasive woo is in our society. That these athletes, who have access to top medical professionals, would also be taken in by this alt-medicine garbage, just makes me sad. Not to mention the fact that their circular burns are lending cupping a lot of legitimacy: if the Olympians are all doing it, and they have access to such excellent health care, there must be some benefits to it amirite?

The Guardian article, eventually, takes the stand that there is really little harm done. It is an innocuous procedure, and if it helps them get over the immense stress that invariably accompanies participating in the Olympics, then who are we to judge?

Personally, I don’t love this attitude, but I also don’t want to put too much responsibility on the athletes for educating the public. They are lending legitimacy to the practice, yes, but I do not think it is their job to parent the masses in the benefits of science-based medicine. Rather, I don’t like the Guardian’s attitude for two main reasons. First of all, I disagree that there is absolutely no harm or pain to cupping. Any unnecessary burns and bruises are preferably avoidable, and on some occasions the procedure can go wrong. But mainly, I think that the bilking of money from anyone, Olympians or otherwise, for a placebo is dishonest and should be called out more strongly.

I have posted before on the harm of the placebo effect. I mentioned the point of perpetuating lies from a medical doctor’s standpoint, but I want to also address this from the practitioner of the placebo’s standpoint as well. Often I’ve been told that real homeopathic “doctors”, or real and responsible chiropractors or cupping therapists, would never tell their patients to seek their alt-medicine treatment for serious conditions, i.e. conditions that won’t improve with a placebo. Essentially, that the proper alternative-medicine types kind of sort of know that their stuff is mostly working through the placebo effect. Well, isn’t that almost worse? You are charging a fortune, often far more than the cost of the real medicine version of the treatment, for a sugar pill or a hot jam jar to the back. If I decided to make little glass bottles filled with water, and got rich selling them online as a headache remedy, wouldn’t all of you call me out and tell me I’m a dishonest fraud? Or will you write articles saying “Well, if the Olympians are taking it and it helps them be less stressed, then no harm done”. Fuck that! I am cheating these athletes out of their money, that is harm done!

Then again, that’s my opinion. According to the commenters on the article itself, the piece was too dismissive and harsh.

When Do You Just Keep Your Mouth Shut?

My mother is currently renting a small holiday apartment in a nearby town here in Germany, so that she can both escape the Italian summer heat, and do some much needed exercises in the thermal baths in the area. When I was visiting her this weekend, her landlord stopped by for a chat. He almost immediately informed us that he has metastatic cancer, with a tumor in his brain, as well as many small masses in his lungs, lymph nodes, and other places throughout his body. I was, of course, devastated to hear this. I doubt he has much longer to live, and it was really sad to find out that such a nice (albeit quite odd) man was going through something so terrible.

But then the conversation took a turn that made me very uncomfortable indeed. My mother asked him if he was doing any treatments, and he informed us that he was doing Gerson Therapy. “Oh! I’ve heard of that! It’s supposed to be really good!” my mother exclaimed. “There’s a Gerson clinic in Hungary right? And in Mexico! Maybe you should think about staying some time at the clinic!” Uh-oh. A cancer treatment my mother has heard of, is enthusiastic about, and is only done in Hungary and Mexico? Quackery alert. He then proceeded to tell us that the bulk of the therapy consisted of drinking gallons of juice made from nettles, dandelion leaves, apples and carrots. Oh dear.

Well, a quick internet search a few hours later confirmed my suspicions that this is, of course, yet another woo-based “naturalistic” cancer quackery, and my heart sank for the man. However, it got me thinking, at what point do you keep trying to dissuade people from falling into pits of alternative medicine garbage, and at what point do you keep your mouth shut?

I have posted before about the potential harm of perpetuating the placebo effect. If I were a doctor, and a patient of mine asked me about Gerson therapy, I definitely would not encourage them to do it. However, when it comes to casual conversation between acquaintances, or even between friends and family, it can get far harder to draw the line.

This man was clearly not forgoing science-based medicine completely. He had regular visits to the oncologist, and had already had at least three operations to remove some of his lymph nodes. What most likely happened was that his doctors explained that there was little more they could do, and so he decided to buy Gerson’s books and try this diet in parallel with his medical visits. He said he felt better, he has lost a lot of weight and has more energy, so the placebo effect does seem to be working on him, as he is also full of hope that this therapy will at least prolong his life. On the other hand, he told us about all the food he is not allowed to eat which he misses, but that giving up cake and alcohol and such things are a small price to pay if this treatment actually does save his life.

This is the sticky part for me. On the one hand, I don’t want to shit all over this man’s hope. Maybe living the last year or two of his life with hope and promise is the happiest way he could be spending this time. On the other hand, how much are his sacrifices costing him, when they will do nothing to save him from cancer? Would he be happier not denying himself the cakes he loves so much, or the holidays he’s not taking, rather than living his last days within a ten minute radius of a toilet for fear of wetting or soiling himself?

At what point do you just shut up and smile? At what point do you stop arguing, stop fighting for reason and science?

For me, there is a hard line when it comes to doing harm. If he were not seeking real treatment at all, I would have said something, even if he thought me interfering and arrogant in doing so. I simply can’t have a clean conscience if I don’t at least try to inform someone who is forgoing medicine for nettle juice. However, if there is nothing that person can do, if all possible medical treatment has been exhausted, and there is nothing left but to wait out the inevitable?

In this case, I did not say anything. I do not know this man at all, and it is not up to me to decide how happy he will be living a lie, or not. I think that, if he were a close friend or family member, I would try to convince them not to go for woo, but I wouldn’t insist if they had their mind set on it. When it comes right down to it, everyone has the right to decide how they want to live out their last days. Of course, in an ideal situation, they would make that decision fully informed, rather than based on lies and empty promises. However, there is a great wide world of information on the internet, and I really do think that some people are simply chasing a happy delusion. Some people really do prefer the feeling of hope to the harsh reality of truth. As I have mentioned before, I am not one of those people, but it really is not up to me to judge how other people find comfort.

What about you? Where do you stand on the fight against woo? Would you have spoken up, in this case?