Deus ex machina

Many of you were too busy trying to ace organic chemistry to know what a deus ex machina is. For those of you who managed to squeeze in a classics course, please stick with me anyway.

Deus ex machina (“god from the machine”) is a literary device. In ancient Greek literature, a complicated dilemma was sometimes solved by having one of the gods literally pluck the unfortunate protagonist off the stage from the arm of a crane. It’s sort the ancient version of the Superman gambit—don’t like the ending? Just turn back time by reversing the rotation of the Earth. In either scenario, an impossible dilemma is circumvented by an improbable escape.

I bring this up because the machina is also used in debates. A valid logical argument (OK, philosophers, please hold your horses…this is the 101 course) requires true premises and a conclusion that must follow. For example:

All humans are mortal

I am human

Therefore, I am mortal

The premises are very likely to be true, and the argument as constructed is valid. The conclusion is very likely true.

Mercury is toxic

Vaccines contain mercury

Therefore, vaccines are toxic

This argument is a properly constructed, superficially valid syllogism. If the premises are true, the conclusion is true.
Continue reading “Deus ex machina”

Compassion? You don’t KNOW compassion!

We’ve often discussed the tactics favored by denialists, and prominent among these is the ad hominem attack. Physicians who speak out against quackery and speak up for science-based medicine are often often accused of lacking compassion. Orac wrote a little bit about the topic today. (OK, Orac never writes a “little bit” about anything, but it’s worth the read.)

The basic argument is that “conventional” doctors ignore patients’ experiences, deny them care that may work simply because science says it won’t, and a whole bunch of other things I don’t really understand. And while they whine about our lack of compassion, they wish ill on us and our loved ones. I don’t hear a lot of real doctors doing that.

Let me tell you what physicians’ compassion is: it’s listening to a patient, talking to a patient, and formulating a plan for a patient based on science and the doctor’s knowledge of the individual.

What clearly is not compassion is making false promises, and offering miracles. What is not compassion is convincing a patient that you are the only one with access to these miracles, and that everyone else has it wrong. One of the wonders of science-based medicine is that, for the most common and serious problems, most doctors will give you similar advice, and that advice will be based on what is likely to help, and less likely to harm.

Cranks and denialists hate being confronted with truth. An ignorant fool over at some fringe autism website recently launched an attack on a doctor whom he perceives to have wronged him. Orac wrote quite a bit about it, so I won’t repeat his points, but there are a few things that need re-emphasizing.

This anti-vaccination cult leader singled out Dr. David Gorski, a surgeon and scientist who writes for I know this guy. I’ve sat down and broken bread with him. I’ve read his posts over at SBM. This guy does not lack compassion. More importantly, he is a real doctor. He doesn’t promise miracles, and he actually cures cancers (by most conventional definitions). And that requires teamwork. He actually has to be able to work and play well with oncologists, pathologists, radiation oncologists, and the rest of the supporting staff of a modern cancer center. If he can’t cure someone, he won’t lie to them. Would it be more compassionate for him to lie and then perform unnecessary operations?

That is what the cranks and quacks offer: bad information, bad advice, and bad outcomes. But they wrap it in a veneer of pseudo-compassion, as if that makes it OK.

It’s not OK. Real doctors are out there every day preventing and treating disease, and occassionally saving a life. Quacks, at there mildest, offer pipe dreams, at their worst, a clean kill.

Denialist award—Andrew Schlafly, Esq.

I am giving out a previously non-existent award today to a truly great denialist. Andrew Schlafly, spawn of anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly and some long-forgotten sperm-donor (ironic, eh?), was not content just being the legal counsel to the uber-crank Association of American Physicians and Surgeons. No, he had to take it one step further, and clog our precious intertubes with Conservaepedia, a repository of all things stupid. In fact, there is so much stupid there, an entire wiki is devoted to documenting it. I was newly enraged when a commenter over at the “blogging on peer-reviewed research” site tried to use this pile of electronic dreck as a legitimate reference.

For those of you who might have forgotten, Conservaepedia hit teh ‘tubes a little over a year ago, with a mission to counter the horrid liberal bias at Wikipedia. Well, no one is going to accuse Conservapaedia of liberal bias. In fact, the entire site is essentially a demented play book for reactionary Christian cults and denialists.

I don’t want to take you too far through the looking glass, but here are some fun examples of reactionary lunacy for you.

Continue reading “Denialist award—Andrew Schlafly, Esq.”

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!

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.

Repeat after me: “Correlation does not imply causation”

The post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy is one of the great weapons in the arsenal of denialists. The reason it works so well is it makes sense. As my readers know, my daughter is dealing with a nasty respiratory virus. One of the doctors told my wife, who is not a medical professional, that kids with this virus go on to develop asthma. My wife was not pleased to hear this. What the doc didn’t tell my wife was whether or not there is a causal relationship between the infection and asthma. It is also true that kids who get RSV end up going to school.

Asthma is a common illness. RSV is more common. Some prospective studies have followed children who have had RSV and looked at the rates of asthma, and found them to be rather high. The problem is, most children get RSV. It is very difficult to prove that a ubiquitous virus has a causal role in a common respiratory disease. The best study would follow similar children with and without RSV, but where do you find kids without RSV? How do you know that kids who don’t have clinically apparent RSV infections aren’t just resistant to respiratory disease in general? That being said, there is a fascinating literature on the effect of RSV on the lungs and the immune system. I’m actually becoming a living laboratory as we speak.

Human beings can’t help being susceptible to the causation/correlation fallacy. It’s probably hard-wired. But we can watch out for it and maintain a skeptical eye on claims of causation.

Psedonymity, anonymity, credibility, and the Overlords

One of the hot topics around here lately is authority and anonymity. It’s a terribly difficult philosophical question—-how can you ever trust a source of information that is second hand? And yet ultimately we all are forced to do it most of the time.

A potent weapon in the denialist arsenal is the fake expert. The profusion of these charlatans makes identifying trustworthy sources even more important. We have many ways of doing this. We often use our intuition, a powerful but notoriously dicey skill. Sometimes we go by word-of-mouth. Sometimes, we go to established sources of authority, such as the CDC or the Mayo Clinic. Is ScienceBlogs a trustworthy source?

Absolutely! and Not at all!

One factor in our favor is the high percentage of real experts who blog under their own names and have verifiable credentials. Another is the fact that most writers here cite primary and secondary sources with links, so that you can follow up on the evidence yourself. Finally, Sciencebloggers often disagree with each other. You will rarely see cranks and fake experts allowing for dissent. Take, for instance, uber-cranks like Joe Mercola and Gary Null. They run “medical” websites. But the information they give out is very thinly veiled propaganda. When you follow their citations to their source, you rarely find credible sources, such as well-known medical journals. Instead, you find unpublished papers by other quacks, or quote-mined statements from reputable journals. Most of the blogs here, even when we’re not at our best, give links and citations that any energetic reader can follow and verify, and the comment sections are open to allow for our own vilification. You’ll rarely if ever see fake experts allowing a lot of unmoderated comments on their websites.

In looking to see if authorities are trustworthy or not, look for some of these signs—a willingness to be questioned, real citations, substantive information that doesn’t read like some college kid made it up after a night of hard partying. Read, but read with intelligence. And chances are, if someone wants to sell you something that sounds too good to be true, well…

Authoritah! wars

There has been a terribly pedantic interesting debate going on around here about the nature of authority in science.

I won’t bore you with the origins of this debate. OK, maybe I will a little, but I’ll try to make this foray into meta-blogging interesting.

First, blogging is not scientific writing as such. It isn’t peer reviewed, it isn’t a systematic presentation of research—it’s whatever the author feels like writing about that day. Now for various reasons, many bloggers write under a pseudonym. There are many reasons for this. First, most of us are not professional writers by trade, so we don’t care as much about being identified with our work. Second, given our fields, many of us wish to avoid having our colleagues or patients identified serendipidously. Lastly, some of us are early in our careers and might not wish to be identified with our non-professional writing.

This leads to some interesting conflicts. In my field (internal medicine), we often revere our older, smarter colleagues for their diagnostic and therapeutic acumen. Their skills may arise from experience, reading, research, or, more likely, all of the above. Many physicians improve with age and experience—diagnosis, in particular, relies on pattern recognition, and experience may improve this. And while we may respect our elders for these abilities, we temper this with the knowledge that most medical decision making must be viewed through the lens of evidence-based medicine—just because Dr. X, said it, that doesn’t make it so—but it may improve the likelihood of it being true. Still, show me the evidence! Of course, when you first see a patient, you form diagnostic impressions without the help of evidence-based diagnostic procedures. These impressions help you decide how to proceed. When you read something by a pseudonymous blogger, you don’t have any clear idea of the level of authority of your source.

(OK, I said I’d try to make this interesting. Sorry.)

Experience counts for a lot in medicine. Authority figures mean something. If someone says to me, “I think he might have lupus…that’s what Dr. Random Guy thinks,” I’m less likely to care than if they say, “Dr. Landsberg thinks the guy’s got lupus.” I know that Landsberg has the judgment, experience, and knowledge to make good diagnoses. I know that he wouldn’t just throw a disease name out there.

But I know this because I knew the man, I read his writings, I saw him work. I knew him to be good based on what he did. I accepted him as an authority, and if I asked his opinion, I’d be willing to believe it.

In medicine, no one specializes in everything. We rely on our colleagues in various sub-specialties to help us out with our patients. We don’t check up on every decision they make, every bit of data they collect, because we can’t.

And here is one of the core issues about authority and science on the web. When you write about science, “because I said so” is not useful evidence. But in transmitting these ideas in writing, no one expects to know everything you do. It’s just not possible.

There is a balance in scientific blogging between giving evidence for every fact we jot down and saying, “hey, I’m a doctor, trust me on this one.” This intersects with some of the principles behind denialism—the reliance of fake experts, and the logical fallacy of “appeal to authority”.

If you don’t trust your source, no amount of evidence they give may convince you. If you trust your source too much, you may be lulled into a false sense of fact-security. But we all must rely on experts at some point.

We all must beware of what we read, and judge its content based partly on the source. If the source agrees with other reputable sources, that is a mark in its favor. It it is sitting alone in the woods crying “Conspiracy!”, well, the trust level drops a bit.

This has nothing to do with qualifications, pseudonyms, or any other blogorrhea. It’s about how to read science. Read as much as you can, from as many reliable sources as you can, and if you are interested in a particular topic, keep up on it, as facts will change.

Slate parses some crankery

Slate has a series of three articles on what editor Daniel Engber refers to as “the paranoid style”. Starting with A crank’s progress, sliding into a review of Doubt is their product, and finishing with a spot-on review of Expelled he runs the guantlet of modern denialism. He also happens to hit upon the major commonalities between all pseudoscientists, which of course I find gratifying. For instance, read his description of Berlinski and how he nails the truisms in detecting the false skeptic:

Forgive me if I don’t pause here to defend the conventional wisdom on evolution and cosmology. (Click here or here for a more expert appraisal.) That would be beside the point. Berlinski’s radical and often wrong-headed skepticism represents an ascendant style in the popular debate over American science: Like the recent crop of global-warming skeptics, AIDS denialists, and biotech activists, Berlinski uses doubt as a weapon against the academy–he’s more concerned with what we don’t know than what we do. He uses uncertainty to challenge the scientific consensus; he points to the evidence that isn’t there and seeks out the things that can’t be proved. In its extreme and ideological form, this contrarian approach to science can turn into a form of paranoia–a state of permanent suspicion and outrage. But Berlinski is hardly a victim of the style. He’s merely its most methodical practitioner.

Don’t mistake denialism for debate, it is merely the amplification of doubt using tactics no self-respecting scientist should use.

His review of Expelled is also worthy of note, in particular I enjoy how expands the type of analysis used by Stein et. al to other denialists like anti-vax denialists and the HIV/AIDS denialism such as that published by Harpers. He correctly points out that Harpers is a crap magazine, and that it rejoices in anti-intellectual attacks on science.

Expelled extends this contrarian approach with one more question: If God might be right, then why are scientists trying so hard to deny His existence? The suppression of faith starts to look like a concerted effort, and so doubt gives way to paranoid science. A skeptic cites bad evidence and sloppy data; the paranoid finds the books have been cooked. A skeptic frets over thoughtless conformism; the paranoid grows frantic about conspiracy.

The proponents of intelligent design are far from the only critics of mainstream science whose skepticism has taken on the trappings of conspiracy theory. In a 2005 article for Salon and Rolling Stone, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. reported on a top-secret meeting in rural Georgia where high-level government officials and pharmaceutical executives worked to cover up the link between children’s vaccines and autism. (No such link has been found.) The public utilities are still accused, as they have been for more than 50 years, of conspiring against America’s youth by fluoridating the water supply. And skeptics of the obesity epidemic point out that the media collude with pharmaceutical companies to feed a booming weight-loss industry. Paranoid science reveals nonmedical conspiracies, too–impenetrable ballistics data form the basis for a theory of the assassination of JFK, and the calculations of structural engineering cast doubt on the official story of 9/11.

More below the fold

Continue reading “Slate parses some crankery”

Alternative medicne and the straight line to AIDS denialism

In order to bring you your daily dose of science, the Great Seed Overlords must pay the bills. Like any other medium, one of the ways this is done is by selling ad space. Internet ad engines generally have some sort of algorithm that choses ads based on the page content, thereby targeting readers’ interests. If you doubt the sophistication of these methods, check your suggestions, or your google search page.

For a skeptical blogger, this can make for some interesting ads. One of mine is for a book called Water: For Health, For Healing, For Life, by F. Batmanghelidj, M.D. I’ve never heard of this guy, so I gave him a click (although I probably should have just googled it to avoid giving him my business—as usual, I’m not providing links to the woo-meister so you’ll just have to google it).

What I found is an example of how the rejection of science and adoption of woo can lead inexorably toward some pretty nasty denialism.

The book advertised offers these promises:

Based on more than twenty years of clinical and scientific research into the role of water in the body, a pioneering physician and the acclaimed author of Your Body’s Many Cries for Water shows how water – yes, water! – can relieve a stunning range of medical conditions. Simply adjusting your fluid and salt intakes can help you treat and prevent dozens of diseases, avoid costly prescription drugs, and enjoy vibrant new health. Discover:

# The different signals of thirst and chronic dehydration in you body
# How much water and salt you need each day to stay healthy
# Why other beverages, including tea, coffee, and sodas, cannot be substituted for water
# How to naturally lessen, even eliminate, symptoms of asthma and allergies
# How to help prevent life-threatening conditions such as heart failure, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and cancer
# How hypertension may be treated naturally, without diuretics or medication
# Why water is the key to losing weight without dieting
# How to hydrate your skin to combat premature aging

This book will save you from medical ignorance and killer chemicals that are used in health problems caused by chronic unintentional dehydration.

So, the usual woo—lots of promises based on nothing. I’d let it go at that, but I was curious about this Batmanghelidj guy. The first hit I got on google was—surprise!—his website full of wacky pseudoscience. First is the hilarious link to a 20 year old NYT article about his supposed water cure.

Then comes the denialist literature. Provided “free, as a public service” a bunch of AIDS denialist screeds. Thrown in for good measure was some cholesterol-denialism. His AIDS paper is actually humorous, or would be if it weren’t for, you know, AIDS. He talks quite a bit about semen and “rectal manipulation”. This is from a guy who, unfortunately, spent a lot of time in a Persian prison.

The point here is that once you abandon science you are open to anything. This may sound like a slippery slope fallacy, but it’s not. Abandoning scientific thought allows you to believe any idea a credulous mind can invent. Sometimes it’s sad, sometimes it’s funny, but more often than not it’s dangerous.