Galileo, Semmelweis, and YOU!

To wear the mantle of Galileo, it is not enough to be persecuted: you must also be right.
–Robert Park

I used to spend a lot of time on the websites of Joe Mercola and Gary Null, the most influential medical cranks of the internets (to call them “quacks” would imply that they are real doctors, but bad ones—I will no longer dignify them with the title of “quack”). I’ve kept away from them for a while in the interest of preserving my sanity. Unfortunately, Orac reminded me this week of the level searingly stupid and dangerous idiocy presented by these woo-meisters.
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New OTA site

The archived reports of the OTA are on a new site hosted by the Federation of American Scientists.

You may remember that we’re big fans of the OTA as we feel that scientific assessment of government policy and guidance of legislation is key to having an efficacious, informed congress. In our initial post on the OTA we said:

It used to be, for about 20 years (from 1974 to 1995), there was an office on the Hill, named the Office of Technology Assessment, which worked for the legislative branch and provided non-partisan scientific reports relevant to policy discussions. It was a critical office, one that through thorough and complete analysis of the scientific literature gave politicians common facts from which to decide policy debates. In 1994, with the new Republican congress, the office was eliminated for the sake of budget cuts, but the cost in terms of damage to the quality of scientific debate on policy has been incalculable. Chris Mooney described it as Congress engaging in “a stunning act of self-lobotomy” in his book the Republican War on Science (RWOS at Amazon).

The fact of the matter is that our government is currently operating without any real scientific analysis of policy. Any member can introduce whatever set of facts they want, by employing some crank think tank to cherry-pick the scientific literature to suit any ideological agenda. This is truly should be a non-partisan issue. Everybody should want the government to be operating from one set of facts, ideally facts investigated by an independent body within the congress that is fiercely non-partisan, to set the bounds of legitimate debate. Everybody should want policy and policy debates to be based upon sound scientific ground. Everybody should want evidence-based government.

One of the leading advocates of restoring the OTA, Rush Holt, has a video up explaining why he thinks the OTA is important:

I’m glad to see that within the government there are those who still think this is an important issue, and the possibility of bringing science back within the halls of government is still a very real possibility.

Feministe on Gardasil

Complementing Pal’s essay on Gardasil yesterday is our buddy la Pobre Habladora guest blogging on Feministe.

Which, I think, brings us to a new angle on anti-vax denialism because as Pal mentions, the motivations behind harping on Gardasil are different than the usual nonsense. Gardasil, to everyone’s dismay, has become intertwined with sexual politics in this country. As the only vaccine that has been identified as preventing a sexually-transmitted disease (the HepB vaccine managed to avoid this, not to mention an association with IV-drug use) there has been a clear impetus among the anti-sex crowd to malign this treatment for girls.

Two things which I think are disgusting and idiotic about this practice. One, I’m willing to bet if it were for boys and not girls, we wouldn’t have this problem. Second, it suggests there is a subset of parents that feels that if their children somehow violate the rules of sex that disease and death should be the wages of their sin.

Is there nothing not disgusting about these attitudes? While the CNN article doesn’t get into this nonsense, let’s not forget the main obstacle to the acceptance of this highly-effective vaccine is not safety issues (it’s a very safe vaccine and the incidents cited in the article are likely coincidence) but rather the amoral bigotries of idiots who are desperate to control women’s sexuality – even to the detriment of women’s health.

Stupid news story

There’s no such thing as a slow news day. There’s a war in Iraq, another in Afganistan, a genocide in Sudan, a presidential campaign, and probably some right wing blowhard having fun in a public restroom somewhere.

So what the hell was the Times thinking with this one? The premise appears to be that blogging is so stressful, it can KILL!!111!one!! In fact the title is “In Web World of 24/7 Stress, Writers Blog Till They Drop”.

Let’s examine that story. The premise is that some bloggers work so hard, under such pressure, that they just drop dead. There are many dangerous jobs out there—commercial fishing and coal mining come to mind. Epidemiologists can figure these things out by collecting data. Reporters can read epidemiology reports and tell us all about them.

Or they can just make this shit up.

According to the “journalist”:

They work long hours, often to exhaustion…. [They] are toiling under great physical and emotional stress created by the around-the-clock Internet economy that demands a constant stream of news and comment…. In the last few months, two among their ranks have died suddenly.

Further down he qualifies his comment:

To be sure, there is no official diagnosis of death by blogging, and the premature demise of two people obviously does not qualify as an epidemic. There is also no certainty that the stress of the work contributed to their deaths. But friends and family of the deceased, and fellow information workers, say those deaths have them thinking about the dangers of their work style.

Let’s compare this to my residents. They are working 80 hours a week, making life and death decisions every minute, and getting pennies for it. They are exposed to dangerous pathogens. I’ve seen one of my residents die, but my anecdote hardly qualifies as data.

To add to his very informative story, the writer quotes one blogger as saying, “I haven’t died yet.”

This is crap journalism. It tells us nothing, and implies a public health problem where none may exist.

I do a lot of bad writing, but I’m an amateur. I’d still be embarrassed to have written this piece, and as an editor, I’d feel a little silly for letting it through.

Anyway, I’m not sure how dangerous blogging could be. I do it all the time, and as they say, “I haven’t died yet.”

I don’t usually do this but…

…I really couldn’t resist sharing some fun links. I guess you’d call it blogrolling.

First, someone got a hold of the über-seekrit Expelled:Leader’s Guide, and started deconstructing it.

Next, Steve Novella once again eviscerates a wacky water-woo cult leader at NeuroLogica.

Panda Bear, M.D. has one of his usual lengthy must-reads.

Orac goes after the reductio ad Hitlerum arguments of Expelled.

Finally, N.B. explains why chemistry is everywhere, even in your hair.

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.

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Finally, an explanation for my sneezing

Here I thought I was the only one but apparently photic sneezing has received enough attention to get researchers interested in it. Apparently it’s an ancient problem:

Aristotle mused about why one sneezes more after looking at the sun in The Book of Problems: “Why does the heat of the sun provoke sneezing?” He surmised that the heat of the sun on the nose was probably responsible.

Some 2 ,000 years later, in the early 17th century, English philosopher Francis Bacon neatly refuted that idea by stepping into the sun with his eyes closed–the heat was still there, but the sneeze was not (a compact demonstration of the fledgling scientific method). Bacon’s best guess was that the sun’s light made the eyes water, and then that moisture (“braine humour,” literally) seeped into and irritated the nose.

Humours aside, Bacon’s moisture hypothesis seemed quite reasonable until our modern understanding of physiology made it clear that the sneeze happens too quickly after light exposure to be the result of the comparatively sluggish tear ducts. So neurology steps in: Most experts now agree that crossed wires in the brain are probably responsible for the photic sneeze reflex.

It’s apparently an autosomal dominant trait, which would explain why other members of my family have the reflex too. Anyone else a photic sneezer?

Obesity Crankery Part II

Orac alerted me, based on my recent obesity writings, of a new crank obesity attack on science.

This latest is in the form of a rebuttal to Morgan Spurlock’s excellent film Supersize me. Comedian Tom Naughton, who has all the charisma of a wet sponge, is making his own documentary Fathead: You’ve been fed a load of bologna. Here’s the trailer:

Aside from the shoddy production, noncharismatic host, and general crankery, I guess it’s not so bad. But I am growing concerned about the continual assault on what little good nutritional data is out there, and the misleading tactics of those defending food that is responsible for obesity and poor cardiovascular health.
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