A leap year Skeptics’ Circle

At Conspiracy Factory.

In particular I like Skepchik’s take on a pretty horrifically sexist Oprah poll which seems to present the only options for women in a stressful situation are to cry now or cry later or act like a big strong man. Hmm.

PalMD has really been fighting the good fight lately with this piece on antivax, but really it’s worth your time to explore his other stuff on Morgellon’s and other crankery.

Good stuff as always, check it out.

Another attack on a researcher

This time it appears to be a physical assault and an attempt to enter a home of a researcher that works with mice.

The researcher described the attack in which people wearing masks attempted to break into her house during her daughter’s birthday party. Although her identity is being protected, I admire her moxy, she’s not going to back down.

“I’m a scientist, I do research that’s really valuable,” she said. “One in seven women get breast cancer.”

She also said she refused to move from her Westside Santa Cruz home, where police say six masked intruders banged on her door and tried to forcefully enter.

“I’m going to keep on keeping on,” she said. “It’s my home.”

The researcher said one of the assailants struck her husband on the hand with an unknown object after he confronted them on the front porch, but he is OK. She said her two children, 2 and 8, who were home at the time, are “terrified” but OK.

Are people beginning to understand yet that this is a problem for more than primate researchers? This type of behavior will only escalate, and it’s because the basis of the beliefs of the ARAs is totally warped. If you listen to what they say and what they do, they believe that science tortures animals, that the research is of no value, and essentially we are inhuman monsters that should be killed. Think I’m kidding? See the comments on my last thread.

The fundamental problem isn’t the absence of appropriate safeguards and regulation of science, we have plenty. The problem is an ideological movement that lies about how we do research, and the scientific basis for using animals in research. It is classic denialism.

If you don’t believe this is terrorism or that it will only get worse see the list of recent actions listed by the ARAs themselves. It’s not going to go away and seems to be spreading to the US. Researchers are going to have to stand up for what they do and not let themselves be intimidated over this. And if they do want to have a debate about the use of animals for research, it will have to start from the premise that without animals biological research is impossible. If you believe that animals shouldn’t be used in research, that’s fine. We differ in opinion. But what can not be denied is the critical utility of animals at all levels of the scientific enterprise. If you are OK with ending most meaningful biological discovery, bully for you, at least you’re honest. I don’t think the majority of people will go along with you though. That’s why they have to lie to support this ideology and that’s why they are denialists. Their position is untenable scientifically and politically.

Measuring Identity Theft at Top Banks (Version 1.0)

I’ve been AWOL from Denialism Blog because one of my UC-Berkeley projects has become all-consuming.

I’m interested in sparking a market for identity theft protection. A real one. One where consumers can actually make choices among banks based on their actual ability to address security attacks. Last year, I published Identity Theft: Making the Unknown Knowns Known, (PDF) an article making a legal and policy argument in favor of mandated public disclosure of identity theft statistics by banks.

In this vein, today, I’m releasing “Measuring Identity Theft at Top Banks (Version 1.0),” my first attempt to rank the top 25 US banks according to their relative incidence of identity theft. It is based on consumer-submitted complaints to the FTC where the victim identified an institution. The data show that some institutions have a far greater incidence of identity theft than others. If you don’t want to open the PDF, check out the Times coverage and peek at this chart!



I’ve almost come to the end of the core 8 weeks of my surgery rotation (4 more weeks follow in electives) and am currently working on the trauma service for another couple days before taking exams.

I don’t have a great deal to say, the hours stay long, the medicine remains interesting etc. I’m enjoying the decrease in laundry that wearing scrubs entails. I enjoy how much doctors tend to take joy in their work. Medicine is a great field that way, as it gives you a feeling of accomplishment as you see what you do day to day really can make a big difference in people’s lives. The debt may be overwhelming, the paperwork endless, and the insurance companies/health policy maddening, but you can see that the satisfaction from the practice of medicine gets them through all the hassles. I’m also amused by the tendency of my attendings to turn to me and say, “don’t blog about this” before saying something funny. Don’t worry guys, I won’t. I’ll just save it for my tell-all book.*

Trauma is an incredible field, and while I won’t comment on the workload (everyone on the trauma ward is a little superstitious – one never comments on things being slow or fast for fear things will become busy, or worse, crushingly busy) it has been an interesting couple of weeks. In particular, one of the attendings uses a unique teaching technique that I’ll write about later this week (with permission) using simulations that we refer to as War Games. I found it all very interesting and helpful so with luck we’ll have a video of me participating in one of these sessions by the end of the week. I’ll write a post on it then, as I hope it can be implemented more widely in medical education.

I’d also like to take this opportunity to ask a couple of favors.

One, I’d very much like people to stop shooting one another. It’s really terrible what bullets do to a body.

Two, it also might help if you all could wear helmets. If I thought you could avoid hitting your head that would be one thing, but the least you can do is take some precautions. Wear them a lot – riding bikes, motorcycles, skiing, etc. In fact, just wear them all the time. Sitting at your desk? Wear a helmet. Walking in the park? Wear a helmet. We’re going to start a new style right here and now. We’ll call it the “I’m either about to get on a bike or am prone to seizures” look.

It would make me feel better. Really.

* Kidding, kidding.

Science-based medicine – The good and the bad on a good new blog

I must say I’ve loved much of the writing at the new blog Science-Based Medicine. These guys are fighting the good fight and presenting very sophisticated aspects of evaluating the medical literature in a very accessible way. In particular I’d like to point out David Gorski’s critique of NCCAM and the directly-relevant articles from Kimball Atwood on the importance of prior probability in evaluating medical research. I mention these as a pair because lately I’ve really become highly attuned to this issue due to the research of John Ioannidis which is critical for understanding which evidence in the literature is high-quality and likely to be true. Atwood rightly points out that pre-study odds, or prior probability is critical for understanding how the literature gets contaminated with nonsense. Stated simply, the emphasis on statistical significance in evidence based medicine is unfortunate because statistical significance is ultimately an inadequate measure of the likelihood of a result being true.

The scenario goes like this. You have an test, let’s say, the efficacy of magnets in increasing circulation in rats. Because magnets are believed to have some health benefit according to some snake oil salesmen, you and 99 other researchers decide to put this to the test in your rat-based assay. Based on chance alone, as many as 5% of you may get a statistically significant result in your studies that appeared real simply due to chance. 95 of you will then say, “oh well, nuts to this” and shove the data in the file drawer to be forgotten. The other 5% may then say, “wow, look at that” and go ahead and try to publish your results. This is what is known as the file-drawer effect. Positive results get published, negative results do not, thus false positive results, especially ones with big effects will often sneak into the literature. Luckily science has a self-correcting mechanism that requires replication, but since we don’t delete the initial studies, they will always be there for the cranks to access and wave about.

Continue reading “Science-based medicine – The good and the bad on a good new blog”

Some Generalizations

One of the few advantages of having no time is that when I do get around to sorting through my RSS feeds of various denialists is that I end up seeing patterns I didn’t observe as much when I tracked these jokers day-to-day. So, inspired by BPSDB I decided I’m going to share some generalizations.


For one, I feel rewarded by my previous study of denialists and cranks. Given that I have no time to deal with the incredible mass of BS that they generate daily, looking through their output I don’t feel particularly inspired to challenge anything in particular they have to say. After all, it’s just the same old nonsense every single day. One of the obvious generalizations you come to looking at a few weeks output of the DI, or a typical global-warming denialist is that one of the critical differences between a denialist and a real scientific site is that real scientists are interested in a synthesis or cohesive understanding of the world. Scientists are interested in making all the pieces fit, and if there is a new or challenging piece of information they are interested in finding a way to include it in an existing framework of knowledge. As we discussed in the Crank HOWTO and Unified Theory of the Crank almost a year ago, the denialist is quite different. All you see out of them is a haphazard assortment of ideas, and the only unifying theme is that, at least to them, it all contradicts scientific theories they are unwilling to accept.

It may be hard to explain but my current approach to my RSS feed is quite different than it used to be. I think that we’ve been successful in communicating to the blogosphere the importance of standards in writing about and critically understanding science. When I see many of the other sciencebloggers (both inside and outside of the sb network) writing about pseudoscience they’ve adopted much of our language because I think they implicitly understand the divide between those who are interested in honest debate and the scientific method and those who strive only to challenge that which they fear or misunderstand.

I think it’s a subtle point, and something you only see when you see the work of a group in aggregate, but it’s one of the more powerful indicators of whether someone is an honest actor interested in the truth and the scientific method. When you look at their output over time, is it just a haphazard set of attacks on that which they dislike, or is it an enthusiasm for exploration and accumulation of knowledge with an emphasis on making the world fit together in a logical and consistent way?

It also demonstrates a critical flaw in the way that scientific news is reported, because many of the science aggregators and mainstream news organizations fail according to this standard. If the motivation behind publication is only to generate buzz or readership the result is a haphazard set of reports on whatever is hot and new, and not necessarily a reflection of the literature as a whole, a common theme we complain about here on scienceblogs. Good science has to age a little bit, and every new result, with some exceptions, shouldn’t hit the lay press without qualification because all that generates is confusion and resentment among the population. Science is not nearly so fickle as a the mainstream reporting of it would have you believe.

Maybe my attitude will change when I have more time to write. I think in about 2 more weeks I will be able to write a little bit more regularly and bring the pain on these denialist jackasses. However, in the meantime, I’m enjoying being able to just zip through my RSS feed, spotting the tactics, and just moving on…

Skeptics’ Circle #80 up at Bug Girl’s Blog

I’m late to the party sorry, but this week’s circle is up at Bug Girl’s Blog. Check it out. She’s one of my favorite bloggers and she’s done a great job with her Valentine’s day edition.

In particular I will point out Greta Christina’s review of “Mistakes Were Made (but not by me)”, and the new (to me) blog BPSDB (like BPR3 but with this snazzy new icon).


My brother Chris would also like Andrea Buzzing about Scientology’s claims about psychiatry.

Why Privacy Is What It Is…

The Ponemon Institute and TRUSTe have just released their annual Most Trusted Companies for Privacy report. As part of this report, the groups asked consumers about the factors–positive and negative–that shaped their perceptions of companies’ privacy practices. (Full disclosure: I am a fellow of the Ponemon Institute.)

Bar Charts 3 and 4 in the Ponemon/TRUSTe survey are instructive. In Chart 3, we see that the strongest indicators for trust among consumers is reputation, respect for consumers, and product quality. This explains why certain information-intensive companies, such as Amazon.com and American Express, are routinely top-ranked for privacy trust. A smaller number of consumers is evaluating companies on actual privacy practices–limits on sharing of data, disclosures around policies, and the presence of third-party reputation seals.


Chart 4 shows what factors decrease privacy trust, and the most influential factor is a data security breach. “Irresponsible marketing” is next, which I assume means that one receives some type of advertising pitch from the company. Again, these constitute the information most available to consumers, and are not truly indicative of a company’s respect for consumer privacy.

Studies such as Ponemon’s help us understand why companies do not compete on policies that maximize privacy rights. One problem is that consumers don’t possess the best information to evaluate and compare companies’ practices. Privacy policies go unread, but even when read, they have other shortcomings. They can be beyond comprehension, contradictory, or simply vague about actual practices. As a result, other characteristics of a company are used as shorthand to assess “trust,” and this introduces unfairness and arbitrariness into the evaluation of a company on privacy.

Can One Live Anonymously?

I’ve spent the last few months working with an excellent journalist on the Anonymity Experiment, which will appear in this month’s Popular Science magazine. In it, Catherine Price attempts to live a normal life without revealing personal data:

…when this magazine suggested I try my own privacy experiment, I eagerly agreed. We decided that I would spend a week trying to be as anonymous as possible while still living a normal life. I would attempt what many believe is now impossible: to hide in plain sight.


Tall and friendly, Hoofnagle has an enthusiastic way of talking about privacy violations that could best be described as “cheerful outrage.” He laid out my basic tasks: Pay for everything in cash. Don’t use my regular cellphone, landline or e-mail account. Use an anonymizing service to mask my Web surfing. Stay away from government buildings and airports (too many surveillance cameras), and wear a hat and sunglasses to foil cameras I can’t avoid. Don’t use automatic toll lanes. Get a confetti-cut paper shredder for sensitive documents and junk mail. Sign up for the national do-not-call registry (ignoring, if you can, the irony of revealing your phone number and e-mail address to prevent people from contacting you), and opt out of prescreened credit offers. Don’t buy a plane ticket, rent a car, get married, have a baby, purchase land, start a business, go to a casino, use a supermarket loyalty card, or buy nasal decongestant. By the time I left Hoofnagle’s office, a week was beginning to sound like a very long time.

Her week is very interesting, and she experiences some funny anecdotes in buying a wireless phone anonymously, getting to and from San Francisco, and using the internet with anonymous proxies. Worth a read!

Edyth London targeted again by animal rights terrorists

I’m very upset to see that following up on previous threats, animal rights terrorists have set fire to a scientist’s house.

I’ve been saying for a while that the real threat towards biological science isn’t the evolution denialists and other silly cranks’ rather laughable attempts at trying to convince people the earth is 6000 years old.The real threat is what we’ve seen in England and other countries of extremist violence against scientists for using animals in research. These actions are often justified based upon the absurd premise that research can be performed without the use of animals.

Let’s be clear, biological science and medicine are dependent on animals and animal products. From basic research to implantation of heart valves, the success of medicine and medical research is dependent on the use of animals and biological materials. While one can disagree with the ethics of using animals for research, one can not deny, without being dishonest, the absolute requirement of animals for the advancement of biological science, and for current therapeutic modalities used every day in medicine. And I think we can all agree that setting fire to Edyth London’s house has more than met the definition of domestic terrorism on the part of the animal rights extremists.

It’s fine if you think it’s immoral to use animals for medical research, I’m not upset by this. But realize that if ALF and PETA have their way there will be no biological research. It is not possible without animals, and if they’re going to be honest about their objectives they have to make it clear to their supporters that the agenda of animal liberationists (note not animal welfare) includes the cessation of progress in biomedical science. Further the groups behind this action have made it clear that they believe scientists may be killed to save animal lives.

Where do you stand? Should it be acceptable to terrorize people like London for using animals in research? Do you agree with Vlasak that people like me should be killed to save animals’ lives? Or are we going to be realistic about the role of animals in research and honestly explain to people that the ultimate objective of these terrorists will be the elimination of progress in multiple fields of research? If they still agree with these extremists based upon that information that’s one thing, but I don’t think that most people realize how extreme the objectives of animal liberationists really are.