A mysterious encounter

The room was dark—preturnaturally dark (damn you, Stephen Donaldson!). I was led by the robed and hooded figures to an altar. On the altar was a…something, and it was covered with a cloth. The cloth was a remarkable black, the kind of black that escapes focus. It created an even darker hole in the already dark chamber.

Two of the figures picked up what appeared to be some type of rope, and slowly pulled. The cloth rose from the altar, revealing a box, but what a box! It was of no material I have ever seen. It was clear, but also thick. With the cloth removed, I could see lights inside—lots of lights. They blinked rapidly on and off in a sequence that I could tell was some sort of pattern, but one far to complex for my mind to comprehend.

And then it spoke.

“What brings you before me, supplicant?”

It’s voice was not box-like at all. It seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

“I…I come seeking knowledge. And advice.”

“That is a good start. Many come seeking knowledge. Some find it. Some do not.”

That final phrase carried a coldness. My mind flashed to an image of Rodin’s “Gates of Hell”.

“I would like to ask a question,” I muttered hesitantly.

“ASK!” it boomed.

“I feel surrounded by ignorance. I can’t seem to find a way out of the dark. I try to tell people to stop chasing miracles, and to look to the marvels of the human mind and that which it discovers through science, and I try to do it with compassion. But I don’t feel like I’m getting anywhere. Like no one is really listening.”

There was a silence.

The silence continued.

The silence became ironic.

And then, it was broken. “Young physician, you have done well. You have helped, in a very, very small way, to bring light to the darkness. But more must be done. Lemme get another beer.”


I shook my head and looked around. I was sitting in a pub, not a creepy Masonic chamber. Damn my wandering mind! I looked down at my pulled pork sandwich and looked across the table at the other physician.

“Damn, Orac, I just had the weirdest daydream…”

“Meh, happens all the time. Maybe you just need more beer.”

“Sure, sounds good. I’ll have one. But will that detract from our planning more attacks on the cranks, the credulous, and the quacks?”

“My young(ish) apprentice, nothing can stop us now! The universe will bow to our powerz!11!!”

“Um, you’re starting to creep me out…”

“Oh, sorry. The nachos always do that to me. But damn, they’re good! I might have to swing through town again someday for another batch.”

“Well, when you do, Orac, the next beer is on me.”

Church vs. Science

HT to Tara

The United Methodist Church has just allowed its member to deliver unto them a hunk of burning stupid. Some misguided souls have looked upon vaccines and have found them wanting. Let us examine for ourselves this misguided petition (which passed 58 to 0). (I’ll skip the theological justifications given—they are irrelevant, unless the Bible says, “thou shalt not preserve vaccines with thimerosal.”)

Whereas, Thimerosal (synonyms include: Thiomseral, Merthiolate, Thimerasol) is a severely toxic, antiquated, organic mercury compound (approximately 50% mercury by weight) that has been added to some vaccines and pharmaceutical products since the 1930s,

OK, we’ve been over this…thimerosal is not “severely toxic”, and was safely used in vaccines for decades until it was removed from most of them a number of years ago.

Whereas, numerous peer-reviewed scientific/medical studies published over many decades, at least since the 1930s, have recommended removing or restricting the use of Thimerasol in medicinal products, and have demonstrated its significant toxicity,

Time to update your references. This issue has been thoroughly studied, and no link between thimerasol-containing vaccine and ill-health has been found.

Whereas, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommended, in 1982, that Thimerosal be banned from topical over-the-counter products, and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and United States Public Health Service called for its removal from all vaccines in July of 1999, as did the Institute of Medicine of the United States National Academy of Sciences in 2001

This was done as a precaution pending data. The data are in. They’re safe. Meanwhile, it’s moot, as only the flu vaccine still has the darn stuff.

You know what? I can’t keep going. This God-damned document produced by the Church is a travesty. It will put children at risk, and we all know that Jesus loves the little children. I know there are Methodist doctors out there. Lots of them. Perhaps they could maybe drop a line to the Church letting them know what asses they are making of themselves?

One Year of Denialism Blog

Today represents one year since we joined scienceblogs, and I think we’ve had a great deal of success in defining the problem of denialism, establishing a new vocabulary for dealing with the problem of pseudoscience, and establishing uniform standards for what is legitimate scientific discourse and debate.

Our first post describes the problem of denialism, and our subsequent posts on cranks, and the 5 tactics of denialism – Conspiracy, Selectivity, Fake Experts, Moving Goalposts, and Fallacies of Logic – have stood the test of time. They accurately describe the types of argument that fail to meet the standards of legitimate scientific debate and inevitably are utilized by those that, for one reason or another, choose to deny reality.

Ultimately my goal with this blog is to educate people about how to detect pseudoscience and dismiss it without requiring an impossible level of expertise in every scientific discipline. I want people to understand that when they see an article that alleges conspiracies, and cites some crackpot, and makes crazy claims of causation that they don’t need to spend a year looking up legitimate sources of information to debunk it.

Pseudoscience follows a predictable pattern of argument. Sources are selectively quoted to provide a sciencey-sounding argument (often using logical fallacies of causation etc.), fake experts are cited to confer a patina of scientific legitimacy, conspiracies are alleged to dismiss the vast expanse of contradictory data and scientific opinion, and criticism is further deflected by constantly moving goalposts to deflect mounting evidence against the fixed belief. In a way science should be flattered – it is the gold standard of reality after all – and the efforts of pseudoscientists to make their nonsense sound like science inevitably indicates the esteem of anti-science movements for the legitimacy of scientific belief.

Detection of denialism by now should be a reflex (if not review the 5 tactics above). You should be able to smell a bad argument by now. Granted, authoritative debunking requires a certain amount of research to familiarize oneself with a topic and understand the basis of denialist argument. But as a practical guide, the 5 tactics should have armed you with the basic tools you need to sort through the vast amounts of information available to the average Joe these days, and decide rapidly that which should be listened to, versus that which belongs on the junk-heap of pseudoscientific nonsense. I’m writing this blog not just to vent about this nonsense that pisses me off, but hopefully to arm the the rational with a vocabulary for systematically dealing with bullshit. I think success for this effort will ultimately rest with my readership, and hopefully one day the media and public at large, regularly applying these tests to information sources to see whether they meet the basic standards for legitimate discussion of scientific fact.

So my friends, show me what you’ve learned. I received an email asking me what I thought of this article appearing in the American Chronicle – a news/opinion aggregater with no standards for inclusion. Tell me what you you guys think, and if you can’t spot the problems that should allow you to dismiss it out of hand. I’ll post my analysis based on denialist factors and the scientific evidence later in the comments and we’ll compare notes. Good hunting!

First, do no harm—Chiropractors, are you listening?

As you may have read earlier, the only thing chriopractic has ever really been shown to do is to help low back pain about as well as conventional therapy. That doesn’t stop chiropractors from doing whatever they want. It sure seems harmless enough, though—you back or neck hurts, some guy moves it around, and you feel better—and all without drugs! What could it hurt, right?

With any medical or physical intervention, things can go wrong, sometimes horribly wrong. For example, when I treat someone with an ACE inhibitor, I run the risk of causing a serious drug reaction. But the benefits far outweigh the risks. Also, I know what problems to look for, and how to treat them. These drugs save kidneys, hearts, and lives, so the payoff is worth the small risk.

What of chiropractic? Well, Harriet Hall over at sciencebasedmedicine.com just saved me a lot of time. Vertebral artery dissection (VAD), a rare type of stroke, has been linked to chiropractic neck manipulation. It’s hard to count precisely, but the Canadian literature has some decent reports. What the reports show is that there is a clear link between VAD and chiropractic. How many of these strokes are caused by neck manipulation is less clear, and that’s where some serious crankery comes in.

Some chiropractors will tell you that if there is a risk, it is quite small, so why worry? But about 10% of people with VAD die. That’s DIE. And they are often young (average early 40s).

There is no proven benefit to chiropractic manipulation of the neck. It is associated with a rare and very dangerous type of stroke. In judging the risk/benefit ratio, the answer here is clear—don’t let a chiro touch your neck—never, never, never.

Physical therapy+massage+woo=chiropractic

This is a reprint from my old blog that will provide necessary backgroud for an upcoming story. Thanks for your indulgence.
Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchI am often asked my opinion of chiropractic care. My usual answer (based on evidence) is that it can be somewhat helpful in the treatment of low back pain. That’s it. Any further claims are complete and utter bullshit. Many chiropractors practice ethically, and recognize the correct scope of their abilities…many do not.

Adapted from RationalWiki
Chiropractic is the theory and practice of correction of “vertebral subluxation processes” to treat and cure disease. It was developed in the late 19th century, just before the development of modern medical education in the United States.
Chiropractors subscribe to the theory of “vertebral subluxation”. This differs from the medical definition considerably. An orthopaedic (real) subluxation is a painful partial dislocation of a vertebral body. A “chiropractic subluxation” is an asymptomatic misalignment or a “vertebral subluxation complex” thought to be a cause of disease. The mechanism posited is usually the blocking of nerve impulses from spinal roots, or some such nonsense. Such a subluxation has never been proven to exist.

Lest you think that this unproved hypothesis has died away, in July 1996, the Association of Chiropractic Colleges issued a consensus statement that:

Chiropractic is concerned with the preservation and restoration of health, and focuses particular attention on the subluxation. A subluxation is a complex of functional and/or pathological articular changes that compromise neural integrity and may influence organ system function and general health.

This hypothesis has never been tested, and ignores significant anatomical reality, such as the fact that much of the nervous system does not pass through “subluxations” in any way. This especially applies to the autonomic nervous system that “influences organ system function”.

According to the American Chiropractic Association:

The ACA Master Plan, ratified by the House of Delegates in June 1964 (Amended June 1979, June 1989, July 1994 and September 2000), and will govern future policies of ACA as quoted:
“With regard to the core chiropractic principle, which holds that the relationship between structure and function in the human body is a significant health factor and that such relationships between the spinal column and the nervous system are highly significant because the normal transmission and expression of nerve energy are essential to the restoration and maintenance of health.

That’s basically a re-statement of subluxation theory without the “s” word. It’s also patent bullshit.

So the chiropractors haven’t given up the absurd theory behind their “profession”—but does it work despite the poor theory? After all, outcomes are what count.

Continue reading “Physical therapy+massage+woo=chiropractic”

Open letter to the People of the great state of Florida

Dear Floridians,

Greetings, and an early “hello”! I’m heading your way at the end of the week to spend my tourist dollars, and I can’t wait to see you!

But first, some important business.

Your representatives in the Florida House have just passed a so-called academic freedom bill. I strongly recommend a deep suspicion on your part regarding this bit of planned government intrusion into your children’s academic future. It is up to you, through your elected Senators, to stop this misguided intrusion of politics into science. It would also be wise to reconsider those who voted “aye” when they come up for re-election. If you fail, the consequences could be more serious than you imagine.

First, let me give you a brief outsider’s view of some of the goings-on. When your governor, Charlie Crist, was asked if he “believed in” evolution, he responded, “I believe in a lot of things. We should have the freedom to have a good exchange of ideas.”

As far as I am aware, this great country has always allowed for “good exchange of ideas”. Also, evolution isn’t something one “believes” in. It is a cornerstone of science. If you are not a scientist and don’t know much about it, there is no shame in that. Just admit it and pick up a book (I’d personally start with anything by Stephen Jay Gould). It would be nice to see a state leader stand up and say, “We have always had, and always will have, the freedom to exchange ideas, in and out of school. This is irrelevant to the design of a science curriculum.”

This bill, which will hopefully die in the Senate, is a sham. It makes a mockery of science, education, and religion. It is simply a way to allow the teaching of religion in the science classroom. Despite the fact that no teachers have filed complaints about evolution education, the bill is designed to protect these non-existent complainants.

And, as one of your own representatives astutely pointed out:

Rep. Carl Domino, R-Jupiter, said the bill would lead teachers to present their personal opinions on evolution in the classroom.

Noting that some people believe the Holocaust never happened or 9/11 was an Israel-hatched plot, Domino said he doesn’t want fringe theories introduced in public schools. “There are a lot of strange things out there that I don’t want teachers teaching,” said Domino, who joined the Democrats in voting against the bill.

Gee, that’s refreshing. Good for you, Senator Domino, and good for your contituents for electing you.

I have to tell you quite honestly—from the perspective of someone in a scientific field, the whole issue looks really silly. Science is brutal…theories that cannot hold up to withering scrutiny do not survive, and scientists are always interested in being the one to discover something new, even if that “something new” is the proof that a theory is wrong. Science is self-regulating that way. Scientists don’t need laws to remind them to critique each other. The idea is laughable.

More personally, as a physician and educator of young physicians, I’d worry about anyone educated in a state where precious time was taken from science classes to teach fairy tales, even popular ones. That’s what social studies is for. I like social studies. I’d feel bad if an aspiring doctor had to take extra time on their own to learn biology because some misguided or coerced teacher was spending time including every imaginable pseudoscience in their lesson plans.

So, my southern friends, good luck. I respect your beliefs, and I respect your right to have a wonderful Sunday school class on Genesis. If fact, try the original Hebrew, or the English translation by Everett Fox; it’s quite interesting—especially in a religion class. In a biology class, it’s just odd.


Peter A. Lipson, M.D.

If you ever get tired of sanity, Huffington Post is still there

In this morning’s post, Mark mentions an article from the alternative medical universe that is the Huffington Post. One of the latest bits of idiocy to come out of HuffPo is from Barbara Fischkin. I have no idea who this person is, but her writing shows a few things: she is willing to go against scientific consensus without any evidence, and while the rest of the country sits agape at the anti-scientific pandering of all of our presidential candidates, she applauds their senseless bloviations.

The candidates are all talking about it, but when Hillary Clinton said it, I cried. (So did I. –ed)
“We will tackle everything from autism to Alzheimer’s, cancer to diabetes, and make a real difference,” she said, in her Pennsylvania primary victory speech. Later, looking at that one sentence in the light of day, I understood why it stopped me in my tracks. Hillary Clinton put autism first on her list of dreaded diseases. First, even though it wasn’t in alphabetical order.

Well, actually, it was roughly in alphabetical order.

More below the fold…
Continue reading “If you ever get tired of sanity, Huffington Post is still there”

Huffington Post is a denialist website

How else can you describe a site that regularly publishes David Kirby’s anti-vaccination denialism, Jennifer McCarthy’s insanity, and conspiracy theories from the like of Diedre Imus?

The latest this weekend is the goalpost-moving from David Kirby, which based on the egregious misinterpretation of the Hannah Poling case, represents the new front of anti-vaccination denialists in their war on reason. In the never-ending quest to pin autism on vaccines no matter what the evidence, the anti-vaccine denialists now are trying to make autism a mitochondrial disorder in order to fit their latest imagined victory. Despite the obvious fact that the disorder in the Poling case was a pre-existing genetic dysfunction that was possibly aggravated by vaccines, Kirby has decided to add to the confusion by now suggesting that this was a “concession” by the government of a causative link between vaccines and autism.

There is no evidence of a link. between autisms and vaccines.

This post from Kirby is joined by this article from Barbara Fischkin which has the audacity to blame autism on thimerosal:

These people were poisoned. One of the culprits is, no doubt, the mercury preservative that was put willy-nilly into so many vaccines.

Let’s be clear. The thimerosal-autism link is one of the clearest examples of a failed hypothesis that I can think of. It was extensively studies, and roundly disproven by the fact that 6 years after it’s removal autism diagnoses continue to increase (A longer discussion for why this is). Even Kirby won’t support this nonsense, yet the HuffPo will gladly let other cranky celebrities and other morons write whatever the hell they want about science as if they have any idea what they are talking about.

This is an example of something we here at denialism blog have been talking about lately. Liberalism is no protection from anti-scientific thinking. In fact, if there is a unifying theme of denialism, it is that any extreme of ideological thinking leads to the necessary denial of fact. When one considers the causes of denialist worldviews, one sees again and again some form of fundamentalist belief. Fundamentalist religion leads to the rejection of evolution. Free-market fundamentalists are the leading source of anti-global warming denialism. On the liberal side, a mixture of technophobia and neo-luddism leads to paranoid suspicions about everything from GM crops causing non-existent illnesses to fear of harmless radio technology such as wifi to the fear of vaccines and medicine innovations exemplified by the HuffPo cranks and the evidence-based medicine/HIV/AIDS denialists like Mike Adams and Gary Null.

All overvalued ideology ultimately represents a threat to scientific or rational thinking. Science doesn’t respect political values or preconceived notions about how the world works. Liberals may side with global warming science because it fits with their preconceived paranoia of corporations and technology, and conservatives may love evidence-based medicine because it protects Dick Cheney from the Grim Reaper but it’s clear no matter what the ideology, whenever there is a conflict between science and politics there is always a constituency that favors rejection of fact to maintain a fixed belief.

Medicine is no exception. Conservatives don’t generally object to medicine, but are happy to lie about contraception, abortion, embryonic stem cell science or the evil FDA regulators when it conflicts with their pro-life or fundamentalist free market agenda. Liberals don’t object to object to being put together after car accidents either, but their anti-corporate and anti-authority ideology leads them to dream up all sorts of paranoid conspiracy theories that fit with altie-woo and luddite denialism.

I believe public policy should be informed by the evidence first, and ideology should always play second fiddle to what can be demonstrated by the facts. When that order is reversed you are playing a dangerous game. Huffington Post, by supporting this denialist claptrap is risking its reputation on writers who are little more than kooks. I think they should follow the model of Daily Kos. The scientific standards for what appears on the front page is consistently top-notch. The diaries, which are essentially a free-for-all, are monitored for the presence of 9/11 conspiracy nonsense and other kinds of embarrassing crankery which damages the ultimate goal of the website. I would hope that Huffington Post could learn from this and understand the importance of standards for inclusion of posts on their site. These kooks will bring them down, because, dammit, lot’s of us out here in the real world think science is important. I would also hope that contributors to Huffington Post who care about science will realize that Huffington Post shouldn’t get a pass just because they might happen to be right on global warming or evolution. These types of posts from pseudoscientific crackpots are an embarrassment, and the inclusion of these kooks undermines the legitimacy of the site as a whole. If there are people who care about making HuffPo sound like a source of legitimate opinion and analysis, they should take a stand, now, before it’s too late.