Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Climategate: Much ado about nothing

As I stated before most "controversies" are non-existent within the scientific community. One example was the hype dubbed climategate. As expected this non-controversy was based upon fabricated tales, of a meanspirited conspiracy by evil scientists, to get you out of your hummer. Lo and behold, are you sitting down?, the allegations turn out to be unsupported by the facts. MSNBC reports on the investigation by The House of Commons' Science and Technology Committee, in the UK:
... the committee said that, as far as it was able to ascertain, "the scientific reputation of Professor Jones and CRU remains intact," adding that nothing in the more than 1,000 stolen e-mails, or the controversy kicked up by their publication, challenged scientific consensus that "global warming is happening and that it is induced by human activity."
The Independent and The Times notice it too. Interestingly, and naturally totally unrelated to that manufactroversy, The Guardian observes:
A Greenpeace investigation has identified a little-known, privately owned US oil company as the paymaster of global warming sceptics in the US and Europe.
The environmental campaign group accuses Kansas-based Koch Industries, which owns refineries and operates oil pipelines, of funding 35 conservative and libertarian groups, as well as more than 20 congressmen and senators. Between them, Greenpeace says, these groups and individuals have spread misinformation about climate science and led a sustained assault on climate scientists and green alternatives to fossil fuels.
One more lie debunked. However, since the anti-science movement has no particular interest in the facts I predict this will not influence the "debate."

Update: For those interested in peer reviewed papers on this topic, they can be found here.

Update II:  More here.

Update III: Additional comment by Tim Lambert.

Friday, 26 March 2010

Delusional disorder: Part II

In part I I outlined the tactics of the anti-science movement. In case you missed their various incarnations, I am talking about those denialists that claim that: the holocaust is just a PR-stunt, HIV does not cause AIDS, Global Warming is not happening, vaccines are the cause of everything evil, evolution is merely a theory, mobile phones cause cancer, terrorism is the biggest threat to your life, et cetera.

This time I want to try and understand why people are so resistent to facts contradicting their personal believesystem. The common thread of all "denialist controversies" is that no amount of evidence is sufficient to persuade denialists that they are simply wrong. This reminds me of what I was taught about the difference between an illusion and a delusion. When we have an illusion we see or hear things, but we are aware they are not actually there, i.e. illusionist, magician. A delusion, however, is seeing or hearing things without realising it is not there. No amount of evidence will convince people, suffering from a delusion, that it is imaginary, i.e. paranoid delusional disorder.

With this in mind I noticed the always invoked conpiracy -Big Pharma, Illuminati, Big Oil, et cetera- to explain away the multitude of scientific evidence refuting the denialist position. Add to that the Matrix-inspired notion that fact and fiction are essentially the same (i.e. evolution is merely one theory of many), together with the always present-both-sides-equally-fallacy invoking media, and science is guarenteed to lose.

Regardless of their idiosynchratic reality-refuting opinions the anti-science crowd shares some interesting characteristics. Skeptical Science noticed this too, and points out five characteristics of the anti-science disorder:
  1. Conspiracy theories,
  2. Fake experts,
  3. Cherry picking,
  4. Impossible expectations of what research can deliver,
  5. Misrepresentation and logical fallacies.
Personally, I see the following traits among denialists:
  1. Indoctrination,
  2. Dogma supercedes evidence,
  3. The denialist is always right, when he is proven wrong see point 2, 6 and 7,
  4. Megalomania: the denialist is the only person capable of understanding/seeing The Truth,
  5. Inconsistency: rigorously applying standards to others while failing to adhere to those standards themselves, see point 6,
  6. Using invented facts, double-standard and logical fallacies,
  7. Conspiracy theory: confronted with any evidence to the contrary it is dismissed as fake (scientists and industry work in unison to plant evidence to hide The Truth)
  8. Cult-like behaviour (because of point 1)
Thinking of the DSM-IV one can't help but notice the similarity with the paranoid delusional disorder. The propensity to create elaborate explanations for ignoring/refuting what science says is the hallmark of delusional people. Since the "teach the controversy"-crowd has succeeded in removing critical thinking skills from schools' curricula and the media in their reports refuse to "take sides" we live in a world where fact and fiction have become equal.

Update: Kimball Atwood makes some suggestions regarding adherents of "alternative medicine," and wonders why:
some people are drawn to implausible treatments, even in the face of compelling, contradictory evidence. Such investigations might begin by looking at the work of Beyerstein and Alcock, for example.
Update II: Posted a more detailed explanation on the rationale behind the anti-science crowd. 

Sunday, 21 March 2010


Both in science, and legal proceedings, statitsics are used as part of the argument. But methamatics has shown to be more difficult and prone to misunderstandings. For an update on the ins and outs Steven Novella discusses the pitfalls in a review of an article by Tom Siegfried.

Update: Some additional points regarding randomized controlled clinical trials (RCT) by Andrew Gelman.

Update II: More from Open Mind explaining:
Statistics works, it does what it’s supposed to do. But it is susceptible to misinterpretation, to false results purely due to randomness, to bias, and of course to error.
One of the dangers inherent in statistical results is over-reliance on the “p-value.” The p-value is the probability of getting the observed result just by random accident, even when there’s no significant effect and the “null hypothesis”
All told, there are many ways for the statistical analysis of experiments to give incorrect results. This may be especially true in medical research, for which the financial incentive is high, the prior probability is often very low, and the sample size may be severely limited by circumstances beyond anyone’s control. But that hardly means that the foundation of statistical analysis is flimsy; that’s just sensationalism. Nor do we need to adhere to an impractically high standard of statistical significance — as desirable as it is, effects are often small and gathering more data (as in clinical trials) can be very expensive and time-consuming, while delays in availability of new treatments can be devastating for a patient with serious disease and few treatment options.
In addition to this explanation of statistics David Gorski and Kimball Atwood use the case of how the aetiology of peptic ulcer disease (PUD) was elucidated to illustrate how plausibility influences medical research. It might be argued that decades earlier than Barry Marshall and Robin Warren, John Lykoudis may have stumbled upon the same interpretation that bacteriae are involved. However, he did so based upon anecdotal evidence and without sufficient evidence to warrant dismissing the then current view that acid was the culprit. Gorski concludes:
I find Lykoudis’s story to be a cautionary tale. Whether he was correct and thus the true “Galileo” of H. pylori, rather than Warren and Marshall or whether he was just another crank, his story demonstrates that we scientists should be very careful to guard against excessive smugness. As has been repeated by many skeptics in many variants over the years, it is not sufficient to claim the mantle of Galileo as a persecuted martyr for science. You must also be right. Even though it is not clear whether, taken in the context of the time, Lykoudis was a crank or a misunderstood physician who was ahead of his time, Warren and Marshall’s vindication of his ideas that PUD is bacterial in etiology reminds us that not all who claim the mantle of Galileo are necessarily cranks. The vast majority usually are, but on very rare occasions we do see a real Galileo.
Another take on statistics can be found at Effect Measure. For the interested reader, and as a note to myself, some general information here, here, here, here.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Delusional disorder: Part I

So far, this year has been very good to those that support rationality and critical thinking. The anti-science crowd has suffered several setbacks in the past months. Mister vaccines-cause-autism, Andrew Wakefield, was exposed by the British General Medical Council (GMC) as "dishonest," "misleading" and "irresponsible," which resulted in the Lancet retracting his 1998 article which sparked more than a decade of fears for vaccination. Then, according to JURIST:
Three special masters sitting in the US Federal Court of Claims [official website] Friday rejected [opinions, PDF] three compensation actions brought in a coordinated omnibus proceeding [backgrounder, PDF; HRSA backgrounder] by families of autistic children who had argued that their children's autism was induced by vaccines containing mercury-laden thimerosol. The families had sought compensation under the no-fault National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program [HRSA backgrounder]. Special Master Patricia Campbell-Smith wrote that her petitioners had not "presented a scientifically sound theory", citing evidence that it was "biologically implausible." In February special masters in the same court rejected arguments [JURIST report] made in three other test cases against the US Department of Health and Human Services by families alleging that their children's autism was caused by a combination of common childhood vaccines.
Responding to the case Steven Novella observes:
This was a huge blow to the anti-vaccine crowd, and an excellent victory for science and reason. It was the equivalent of the Kitzmiller vs Dover trial for Intelligent Design.
His conclusion is:
This most recent decision by the Autism Omnibus is a slam dunk – after an exhaustive review of the evidence, allowing both sides to present their best case, the three masters are unanimous in their strong opinion that there is no evidence linking thimerosal to autism. They trashed every claim and argument brought forward by the petitioners – the logic and evidence simply does not support their case.
Normally, the fact that a major medical journal retracts the study that launched the infectious-disease-promoting-movement, combined with study after study refuting a reality denying view resulting in a verdict which emphasises the unscientific nature of the claims, one would think his supporters would re-evaluate their view and conclude it might not be compatible with reality. Not the anti-science crowd. Reminiscent of Hydra they are impossible to defeat. The loss of Wakefield inevitably results in a flood of ad hominems and attempts to discredit a real scientific study, through misrepresentations of how science works.

They focus on studies disproving a link between vaccines and autism. One of its authors, Paul Thorsen, allegedly committed a crime. The alternate reality inhabitants are oblivious to the inherent irony invoking his possible character flaw as evidence to invalidate scientific studies he participated in while ignoring the possible fraud by their Lord and Master. What they missed, according to Orac, regarding the irrelevancy of what a scientist does in his private life, is relevant how?:
Was there an allegation that somehow this alleged financial fraud had anything whatsoever to do with the design or excecution of Danish studies that failed to find a link between either MMR or thimerosal-containing vaccines and autism? Is there any evidence anywhere that Poul Thorsen committed scientific misconduct on the order of what Andrew Wakefield did? Seriously. I don't see anything in any of the number of vicious attacks on Poul Thorsen (who may or may not be a criminal), the SSI (which doesn't deserve them), or Aarhus University in Denmark (which also doesn't deserve them). It's a pure smear against these latter two institutions, guilt by association.
In other words, it's very typical of the anti-vaccine movement. The bottom line is that this is not a scientific scandal. It is a financial scandal that happens to involve a scientist.
In short:
  1. He is not the main author,
  2. Taking out one study does not negate the multitude of other studies showing the same thing: autism is not caused by vaccination,
But then again, when your belief is the sole arbiter of your worldview you are not interested in testing that premise. Rational people have an opinion based on the facts, while the anti-science crowd feels that the facts have to be adjusted to support their opinion.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Science vs. anti-science

At present there is strong resistence to applying the scientific method in many "controversies." Most notably we are told that science does not preclude religion. In that debate some advocate a more accommodationist position. Larry Moran dissects that erroneous proposition:
Good, let's discuss. We begin by defining terms. I claim that science is a way of knowing based on rational thought, skepticism, and evidence. I claim that when that way of knowing is applied to religious claims, those claims can be shown to be false or, at the very least, unsupported. Thus, if you are committed to science as a valid way of knowing, it follows that, when you stick to that commitment, the vast majority of religious beliefs are not compatible with science.
In essence, if you consistently apply the scientific method to everything you do or think:
You can't claim to be thinking like a scientist while holding on to beliefs that have been refuted by science.
However, being rational and consistent is the work of the Devil, as it inevitably will unmask religion as nothing more than superstition posing as enlightenment. As such, just like the rest of the anti-science movement, they fear to be exposed as peddlers of nonsense and will fight tooth and nail to prevent that.

Update: Responding to comments at the above post Larry Moran explains his description of the National Center for Science and Education (NCSE) position in this matter. He shows several examples of their site linking to pro-religion articles and observes:
Correct me if I'm wrong but that doesn't sound like a neutral position on accommodationism and it doesn't sound like support for the idea that science and religion may be in conflict. It sounds like accommodationism. 
I don't see an official NCSE webpage called "Resources for Atheists." I wonder why?
Update II: The conclusion of the response by Joshua Rosenau is:
NCSE's job is not to adjudicate philosophical disputes, but to provide resources to people in crises over the teaching of evolution, and the site is dedicated to providing the resources needed by activists and by citizens caught in the crossfire. It's useful for people in the field to know about theologies that are friendly to evolution, and it is accurate to say that they exist. And at the end of the day, it works. And that's what science is about.
Mike Dunford chimes in and states:
I can only see two options. You can come up with a scientific test that is compatible with your own determination of what people should actually expect to see based on your own view of what the nuances of their beliefs should be. The results of such a test can even reasonably be used to justify your own personal rejection of that belief. Attempting to apply the results more broadly simply doesn't work - you wind up arguing with what you think should exist, rather than what's actually there. Or you can simply admit, however reluctantly, that there are some beliefs that science cannot investigate, because there is no set of physical findings that is incompatible with those beliefs. I can see that being frustrating, but I'm not sure why it's all that confusing.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Homeopathy = placebo

As long as I can remember I have had an open mind for the unusual and still I believe thinking outside the box is mandatory for anyone with the slightest interest in science. As an aside, as a doctor working in the Intensive Care Unit, or confronted with patients that have significant comorbidity, I occasionally need to find an alternative approach as the usual treatment is either insufficient, or too dangerous for the patient. I'll spare you the details. The point is I subscribe to having an open mind.

All this is a somewhat complicated introduction to a form of "alternative medicine" I feel requires a mind so open the skull has disappeared and the brain is lying on the floor. Not only does it violate the notion that when you make a scientific claim it has to have some plausibility, but every inquiry into its efficacy has shown it does not rise above the placebo-effect. You may know it under its awe-inspiring name: homeopathy.

Finally the Science and Technology Select Committee, in the UK, concluded:
By providing homeopathy on the NHS and allowing MHRA licensing of products which subsequently appear on pharmacy shelves, the Government runs the risk of endorsing homeopathy as an efficacious system of medicine. To maintain patient trust, choice and safety, the Government should not endorse the use of placebo treatments, including homeopathy. Homeopathy should not be funded on the NHS and the MHRA should stop licensing homeopathic products.(h/t Orac)
In The Guardian, Martin Robbins from The Lay Scientist, responds to their verdict:
Sadly, the criticism is likely to fall on deaf ears. Rather than take the opportunity to reassess their approach, homeopaths are filling blogs and tweets with dark imaginings of vast, Big Pharma-controlled conspiracies against their noble art, painting a vivid picture of the fantasy world that they appear to inhabit.
Steven Novella noticed the same ruling and commented:
The committee listened to proponents and critics, and found that homeopathy proponents cherry picked out-dated and fatally flawed studies to support their position, including a lecture series that wasn’t even a systematic review. Meanwhile, the best reviews of the best evidence clearly show that homeopathy is no better than placebo – which means it doesn’t work.
In another post Novella documents, this and other signs, that appreciation of science is awaking, which seriously damages the anti-science movement. Coincidentally this blast from the past at Bad Science.

In case you are still wondering: how does it work?

Now it is official. The purveyors of anti-science have discovered the newest incarnation of the placebo. What may it be you ask, quoth Orac:
Why homeopuncture, of course:
There is always a new non-therapy (a.k.a. placebo) to promote. Sigh.

Monday, 1 March 2010

Animal rights

This is episode 307 from the series never let science interfere with ideology which deals with the Animal Rights Movement. These idealists proclaim to save animal life by correcting the falsehood that experiments on animals are essential to understanding diseases and developing medical treatment.

Leave it to Orac to correct the misleading, if not severly reality-denying, statements. He concludes his article with the following:
Just remember, whenever you hear seemingly "scientific" arguments against animal research that emphasize how bad and inaccurate it is, ask for concrete examples from the peer-reviewed literature that show that non-animal modalities are consistently equal to or better than animal experiments to answer the question being asked. You'll be hard-pressed to find them.
But then again, since when do we need science to influence our views?