A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

From Abracadabra to Zombies

The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter

Volume 11 No. 10

October 2012

....the basic architecture of the brain ensures that we feel first and think second.... (paraphrase by David Ropeik of neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux on the neural roots of fear)

What's New?

New SD entry: The "China Study".

New Unnatural Virtue episodes (mp3) on Skepticality: telepathy, pseudoscience, and anecdotal evidence.

New blog entries on Unnatural Acts that can improve your thinking: shoehorning, recency bias, hindsight bias, and wishful thinking.

New reader comments: transcendental meditation, detoxification, and Lourdes.

Revised SD entries: alkaline diet and Robert O. Young (to correct some misleading claims regarding Kim Tinkham).

Updated: vitamin C (doesn't prevent colds), ginkgo biloba and Alzheimer's (no connection), past life regression (Jon Danzig thrashes Brian Weiss), positive-outcome bias (Ben Goldacre goes after Big Pharma; see below), and acupuncture (new metastudy debunked).

The irrelevant appeal to tradition (znaczenia do tradycji) entry has been translated into Polish.

Ben Goldacre goes after Big Pharma

Ben GoldacreDr. Ben Goldacre's latest book Bad Pharma: How drug companies mislead doctors and harm patients is out in the UK. (It will be out in the U.S. on January 8, 2013.) An edited extract is available from The Guardian. Here's an excerpt from the excerpt:

Seven trials had been conducted comparing reboxetine against a placebo. Only one, conducted in 254 patients, had a neat, positive result, and that one was published in an academic journal, for doctors and researchers to read. But six more trials were conducted, in almost 10 times as many patients. All of them showed that reboxetine was no better than a dummy sugar pill. None of these trials was published.

Dr. Goldacre was a bit peeved that he had gone over the published data with a patient before prescribing a drug that not only would not help his patient but might harm him. In a nutshell, here's his view of how Big Pharma works with physicians who are trying to help patients:

Drugs are tested by the people who manufacture them, in poorly designed trials, on hopelessly small numbers of weird, unrepresentative patients, and analysed using techniques that are flawed by design, in such a way that they exaggerate the benefits of treatments. Unsurprisingly, these trials tend to produce results that favour the manufacturer. When trials throw up results that companies don't like, they are perfectly entitled to hide them from doctors and patients, so we only ever see a distorted picture of any drug's true effects.

This is not what patients or doctors want to hear, but hear it we must. Thank you, doctor.

Science as Propaganda

Gilles-Eric Seralini "has been Gilles-Eric Seralini campaigning against GM [genetically modified] crops since 1997." His research methods have been questioned before, according to the New York Times, but Seralini has apparently reached the nadir of junk science in the name of the higher truth. In the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology (an Elsevier publication), he and some like-minded warriors recently published "Long term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize." Seralini's research team claimed to have found that GMO corn fed to rats caused them to develop giant tumors and die prematurely. [update Nov. 28, 2013: The article has been retracted.] Keith Kloor of Slate writes:

Within 24 hours, the study's credibility was shredded by scores of scientists. The consensus judgment was swift and damning: The study was riddled with errors—serious, blatantly obvious flaws that should have been caught by peer reviewers. Many critics pointed out that the researchers chose a strain of rodents extremely prone to tumors. Other key aspects of the study, such as its sample size and statistical analysis, have also been highly criticized. One University of Florida scientist suggests the study was "designed to frighten" the public.*

Science writer Carl Zimmer not only found the science dubious, he was outraged by the method of criticism control used by the Seralini group.

... outside experts were slow to comment in part because reporters who got to see the paper in advance of the embargo had to sign a confidentiality agreement to get their hands on it. They weren't allowed to show it to other experts.

I don't think I will be reading Seralini's new book All Guinea Pigs!. Those driven by motivated reasoning, like Tom Philpott, food blogger for Mother Jones, will probably give the book a glowing review. Philpott likes the new study. He says the results "shine a harsh light on the ag-biotech industry's mantra that GMOs have indisputably proven safe to eat." A harsh light or a false light? Anyway, for now I think I will go with the sentiment expressed by UC Davis scientist Pamela Ronald:

There is broad scientific consensus that genetically engineered crops currently on the market are safe to eat. After 14 years of cultivation and a cumulative total of 2 billion acres planted, no adverse health or environmental effects have resulted from commercialization of genetically engineered crops.

I'll change my mind when I see some compelling evidence of imminent danger from GM crops.

(An irrelevant aside: Cindy Sheehan, famous for protesting her soldier son's death in Iraq at George W. Bush's ranch, recently joined protesters at the Monsanto plant near my hometown of Davis, California. As Dow Chemical was to those of us who protested the Vietnam war, so is Monsanto to those who oppose GM crops.)

For the record, I plan to vote against Proposition 37, which requires that genetically modified (GM) food to be labeled in food stores throughout the state of California. I think such required labeling is fear-mongering and pointless.

update: France’s six academies of science have found nothing of merit in the recent Seralini et al study linking GM maize to cancer. Here's an English translation of their joint statement http://slidesha.re/RfnRrS The European Food Safety Authority found the same http://bit.ly/Wp9mCP

Kahneman's Challenge

Daniel KahnemanDaniel Kahneman has written an open e-mail to social scientists working in the field of social priming. The priming effect is a biasing effect on judgment or action by the cognitive meaning or emotive aura of memories, words, images, or symbols. Those who study priming look for subtle cues that can unconsciously influence our thoughts or behaviour. According to Kahneman, the work on social priming has been called into question because of failed attempts to replicate classic priming studies, increasing concerns about replicability in psychology in general and fraud by social psychologists such as Diederik Stapel, Dirk Smeesters, and Lawrence Sanna, who used priming techniques in their work.

Kahneman wrote:  “Your field is now the poster child for doubts about the integrity of psychological research… I believe that you should collectively do something about this mess.” His solution, according to Ed Yong, is a “daisy chain” of replications, where laboratories collaborate to check the results of their neighbours, in an open, transparent, and pre-established way.

Good luck to them.

Lone Genius or Crank?

Mehran Tavakoli KesheIranian-born nuclear engineer Mehran Tavakoli Keshe claims to be on the verge of discovery, using only plasma reactors, of "new scientific knowledge, new technologies and new solutions to major global problems like famine, water shortage, lack of electrical power supply, climate change, and disease" As a bonus, his plasma reactors " will also give Mankind the real freedom to travel in deep Space." He has founded the Keshe Foundation, should you care to give away any money to help him help Mankind or to escape to deep Space.

Reorganizational Healing

Donny EpsteinReorganizational Healing is the invention of chiropractor Donny Epstein. It is defined as "an approach to healing and life which seeks to both optimize existing structures and fields of influence, bringing them into a more dynamic, aware, and responsive state while producing new sustainable emerging properties which can assist in self regulation, growth and evolution of the systems." Anything that confusing must be good, right?

"It has three central elements: The Four Seasons of Well Being (an individuals [sic] focus regarding the world around and within them), the Triad of Change (the relationship between structure, behavior and perception) and the Five Energetic Intelligences (resources we fuel our actions and attitudes with)." What? No mention of the Seven Dwarfs of Hypersensitivity or the Eight Blowhards of Industry?

If you haven't guessed yet, reorganizational healing is the way to true wisdom, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

Lynn McTaggart's Magazine

Lynne McTaggart is a lady who thinks that science is just now learning what the ancient myths of religions told us long ago. She has recently launched a magazine that purports to tell us what doctors don't tell you (sound like the pitch of Kevin Trudeau?). The title of her rag is What Doctors Don't Tell You (WDDTY). Simon Singh, who once criticized chiropractors for promoting "bogus" treatments and was sued for it, has criticized the rag as promoting advice that could potentially harm readers. He contacted Comag, the distributors of WDDTY, to say just that. Comag's response was to warn Singh that it would seek legal counsel. Oooooh.

Simon SinghSingh was joined by GP Margaret McCartney in condemning the magazine. "I'm astounded that Lynne thinks this is an evidence-based publication. It's anything but," she said. "The problem with evidence is that it can tell you things that you'd rather not know. A lot of the time medicine does do harm but that's why doctors and scientists are duty-bound to put their research findings out there and to stop doing things that cause harm. What we shouldn't do is abandon medicine and the scientific method and go straight for alternative medicine with no good evidence that that works either."

It must be annoying living in a country where criticism is met with the threat of legal action.

Darryl and Bashar

Darryl Anka"Bashar is a multi-dimensional extra-terrestrial being who speaks through channel Darryl Anka from what we perceive as the future. Bashar explores a wide-range of subjects with great insight, humor and a profound understanding of how reality creation occurs!" So says Bashar/Anka's website.

Bob is a terrestrial who wonders how members of his own species can suck up this tripe as if it were sensible. Anka says he's been channeling a being from the future for 26 years. Why am I just now hearing of him? Just lucky, I guess.


Written by Bob Carroll
with the assistance of John Renish
Follow the SD on Facebook and Twitter

This page was designed by Cristian Popa.