Tag Archives: pseudoscience

Fooled by Pseudoscience: A Philosophy of Science

The “huge quantities of data” collected on the subject show that the principal reason people are deceived by pseudoscientific claims and alternative therapies is not intellectual ability, but personal experience: a bad personal experience with mainstream medicine is the overwhelming reason, regardless of medical training.

That’s from Ben Goldacre in an interview for The Philosophers’ Magazine where he discusses at length the philosophy of science, pseudoscience, and the medical practice.

One important thing to recognise always is that an extremely good tool has to be used in the right situations […] Philosophy is one of those tools, but I’m not sure it’s the meta-tool which tells you which tool to use.

There’s something very seductive about the absolute precision and clarity you can get in some philosophical arguments that I think can be self-flattering and a bit misleading, and that’s a real danger. Because one thing that you really learn in medicine is that having a particular professional qualification or educational background is certainly a risk factor for competence in a particular area, but it is not a guarantee.

Asked if he overestimates the competence of the general public in being able to research the overwhelming number of pseudoscientific claims and discover the truth, Goldacre replies:

There are two problems here. One is are you intellectually capable? Do you have the basic intellectual horsepower? And the second thing is, are you motivated? And I think what people are generally lacking is the motivation, But to an extent it’s habit. […]

It’s often not about failures of reasoning that lead people into these blind alleys, into irrationality. It’s not because of a lack of intellectual horsepower or reasoning skills. It’s because of something else. It’s because of a whole complex interlocking web of social and cultural and political and personal issues that people bring to a problem. When somebody says standing next to a boiling kettle can give you birth defects, as a pregnant woman, what they’re actually saying is, ‘I’m really freaked out by modernity. I just don’t like new stuff. I wish it could be a bit like it was when I was a kid, and I think that means rural, because I remember spending a lot of time in the garden.’ That’s a very crude, stylised version of it, but, you know this world.

via The Browser

The Evidence For (and Against) Health Supplements: a Visualisation

After collating the results of over 1,500 studies and meta-studies (only “large, human, randomized placebo-controlled trials” were included), Information is Beautiful’s David McCandless collaborated with Andy Perkins to produce a comprehensive data visualisation mapping the the effectiveness (or not) of a wide range of health supplements (there’s a static image and interactive Flash version available).

Some of the findings:

  • Green tea has been shown to lower cholesterol in a large number of studies, but there’s no sign of cancer prevention properties.
  • There’s strong evidence showing Omega 3‘s cholesterol-lowering abilities and good evidence indicating it can help improve some ADHD behaviour and lower blood pressure. In terms of preventing arthritis and cancer, and in relieving depression, the evidence is conflicting.
  • Fish oil has been shown to help lower blood pressure and the risk of secondary heart disease, but the evidence for it improving general health isn’t strong (but is promising).
  • Vitamin D is fantastic: great for all-round general health and cancer prevention.
  • Vitamins A and E aren’t beneficial for much at all, while Vitamin C studies are somewhat conflicting.
  • Beta carotene‘s position surprised me: there is little-to-no evidence of any health benefits. The same goes for acai and goji berries, ginkgo biloba and copper.

The raw data used to generate the visualisation is available–along with citations–in a Google document that is occasionally being updated.

The Efficacy of Hand Sanitizers

Given their prevalence in offices, hospitals and pharmacies (how naïve?), I would have thought the effectiveness of hand sanitizers would have been a lot greater than it is:

In 2005, Boston-based doctors published the very first clinical trial of alcohol-based hand sanitizers in homes and enrolled about 300 families with young children in day care. For five months, half the families got free hand sanitizer and a “vigorous hand-hygiene” curriculum. But the spread of respiratory infections in homes didn’t budge. […] A Columbia University study also found no reduction in common infections among inner-city families given free antibacterial hand soap, detergent, and cleaning supplies. The same year, University of Michigan epidemiologist Allison Aiello summarized data on hand hygiene for the FDA and pointed out that three out of four studies showed that alcohol-based hand sanitizers didn’t prevent respiratory infections. Then, in 2008, the Boston group repeated the study—this time in elementary schools. […] Again, the rate of respiratory infections remained unchanged, though the rate of gastrointestinal infections, which are less common than respiratory infections, did fall slightly. Finally, last October, a report ordered by the Public Health Agency of Canada concluded that there is no good evidence that vigorous hand hygiene practices prevent flu transmission.

The final advice:

Follow the data and get a flu shot, wash your hands sensibly after using the bathroom and around meals, and stop wasting money on hand sanitizers.

via Link Banana, saying “they could (should) have been most explicit on the differences between hand washing […] and hand sanitizers”. Seconded–I’m no longer sure where hand washing fits in this picture.

Note: The Wikipedia article for hand sanitizers paints them in a slightly more positive light, but with many caveats (e.g. alcohol content and duration of exposure to the product is important, etc.).

The Anti-Vaccine Movement and the Rejection of Science

Already covered to death, it’s been on my bookmarks list since I read the following from Wired editor Mark Horowitz on it’s day of publication:

Best/worst day. Story I am proudest of assigning and editing at Wired goes live today. […] But I also lose job. Bummer!

That story is a fantastically well written and researched article looking at the snake oil peddled by the anti-vaccine crowd and why people listen to, and fall for, their pseudo-science (i.e. perceived risk and irrationality).

The rejection of hard-won knowledge is by no means a new phenomenon. In 1905, French mathematician and scientist Henri Poincaré said that the willingness to embrace pseudo-science flourished because people “know how cruel the truth often is, and we wonder whether illusion is not more consoling.” Decades later, the astronomer Carl Sagan reached a similar conclusion: Science loses ground to pseudo-science because the latter seems to offer more comfort. “A great many of these belief systems address real human needs that are not being met by our society,” Sagan wrote of certain Americans’ embrace of reincarnation, channeling, and extraterrestrials. “There are unsatisfied medical needs, spiritual needs, and needs for communion with the rest of the human community.”

Looking back over human history, rationality has been the anomaly. Being rational takes work, education, and a sober determination to avoid making hasty inferences, even when they appear to make perfect sense. Much like infectious diseases themselves — beaten back by decades of effort to vaccinate the populace — the irrational lingers just below the surface, waiting for us to let down our guard.

I post this now as in recent days Andrew Wakefield—the physician who linked the three-in-one MMR vaccine to autism—has had his original article fully retracted by the medical journal The Lancet after the General Medical Council found he acted “dishonestly and irresponsibly” with “callous disregard” and had a conflict of interest in his study.

Suing in the Name of God

Soon it’s going to be illegal to see into the future; contact the deceased; and find out what’s inside closed envelopes. Well, probably…

New laws are about to criminalise clairvoyants who fail to note on their advertisements that their services ‘are not subject to scientific proof’.

Obviously, I’d like to think that the more intelligent among us realise that most of this “clairvoyance” is just a combination of Forer effects, confirmation bias and self-delusion, but I’m a positivist.

I can’t wait to see my first case:

“Madame Arcati, you have been convicted of preying upon stupid and gullible people by purporting to see into the future, and to communicate with the dead, without warning them in writing that your art is tosh”.
“But Sir, that’s what we of the spiritual trade have been doing for centuries. Surely the stupid and gullible should be allowed their illusions?”
“And another thing, Sir: If I am to be punished for this, what about the Vicar? He can’t prove his claims any more then poor little I can. What about wrinkle cream makers?”

This has also been in the news previously. I do wonder, though, if it will be stretched to cover the many instances of popular pseudoscience.

via The Magistrate’s Blog